NOT just an embarrassing rugby match, but an embarrassment for rugby, an assault on the senses and some grim history rewritten.
There may not have been as many reset scrums in the annals of Six Nations rugby. There may not have been as many penalties and there definitely weren’t as many penalties at goal, 18 in all. A world record. Break out the bubbly. Or maybe not.
It was a mess out there, an unholy shambles. Who was to blame? Everybody. More was heard from the referee, Craig Joubert, than from the vast crowd which turned up to watch. For nights on end those who witnessed it may hear the shrill blast of the South African’s whistle in their ears, for he never stopped.
Joubert is nobody’s idea of one of the game’s great officials, but the players made his life hell. He spoke repeatedly to both sides about their lawlessness at scrum-time. He ended up pleading with them. Begging, almost. What he should have done was bin them. Bin them early and bin them often until they behaved. He produced his yellow card once all day, when the game was practically over. His lack of authority was maddening. But so was the wretched discipline of those around him.
The one bright spot – and it was a beacon, to be fair, in a Welsh and a Lions context – was the return, with sirens blaring, of Sam Warburton to the top table of world class openside flankers. The hearts of all Lions lovers will have fluttered madly yesterday. Warburton is back but that’s only the beginning of the story, for David Pocock, his great counterpart in gold, has gone, injured and out of the series: a seismic development.
After dog-days in recent times, Warburton’s bite at the breakdown returned in force, his impact visible to the last whistle with Scotland pounding on the Welsh line, vast waves of possession that only ended when Scotland got turned over. You didn’t need a replay to know what happened. “Red seven,” shouted referee Joubert when identifying the architect of the home’s team angst. To that, all of Scotland might have responded: “Of course it bloody is!”
Wales deserved their victory, no question. They weren’t great, but they were good enough, too good for their hosts, who may as well have left their attacking game on the bus beforehand for all that they used it. They didn’t have the opportunity to use it. Their set-piece was a calamity, their discipline a horror show. Joubert was rough on them on a couple of occasions, but for the rest of it they brought misery upon themselves. The amount of needless penalties given away was jaw-dropping. Scotland had a death-wish at times.
Against Ireland a fortnight ago, they made the Biblical miracle of the loaves and the fishes look like a card trick, a win so improbable that you wondered if you were ever likely to see anything like it again. And the way things went at the beginning you wondered if something similar was happening. Ireland had a kicker who couldn’t convert his kicks and so did Wales. In the beginning at any rate. Lord, how Leigh Halfpenny made amends for missing three of his first four kicks at goal.
Scotland had no possession worthy of the name, and yet until the last kick of the first half they were ahead and until the 72nd minute they were still within a score, despite everything. They had the same man to thank for it yesterday as two weeks ago: Greig Laidlaw. But Laidlaw’s boot was never going to be enough.
The scrum-half’s points and Halfpenny’s early profligacy kept Scotland alive, but they masked a multitude of Scotland ills. Euan Murray got done as a lazy runner, but Halfpenny missed the penalty. Ross Ford was offside at a ruck, but Halfpenny missed again. Richie Gray played the ball ahead of his kicker, but Halfpenny’s kick came back off the upright. Wales were denied and Scotland survived. They were allowed to stay in the game just as Ireland had allowed them to. Save for a clinical moment from Duncan Weir and some pressure at the end, they created nothing. By the hour mark, Joubert had given so many penalties at scrums and rucks that every player and about half the crowd had been penalised. At one point, Joubert pointed to the stand and raised his arm at Mrs Kelly Brown for not moving away from her seat. Or maybe it just felt like that. It felt like we couldn’t get through 30 seconds without Joubert calling a halt. It was godawful stuff.
Joubert never blew as much and never talked as much in his refereeing life. Both sides felt aggrieved, as you knew they would. That is the way of it. Maybe back in the day when Moaner van Heerden was in his lunatic pomp in Natal a referee may have blown as often as Joubert did yesterday, but it’s hard to imagine it. By the time Halfpenny fired Wales into an unbreakable lead it was his 11th shot at goal. Meanwhile, people were losing the will to live.
Later, Scott Johnson didn’t feed what sense of grievance Scotland were feeling, and fair play to him for that. He knew the reality and it was that his team didn’t deserve to win, not when they singularly failed to combat Warburton, and Justin Tipuric when he came into the fray, not when they threw away momentum with crass errors, a self-destruct quality that was typified in the closing minutes when they had an attacking lineout in the Welsh 22 and then turned it over.
The sound of chickens coming home to roost accompanied the music of Joubert’s whistle. Against Ireland they got away with a heavily flawed performance, but not here. This team continues to try and win matches without creating a platform. It worked a fortnight ago, but if we live to be 100 it may not happen again, 100 being about the number of years we all aged while watching this.
Onwards to Paris. In the meantime, Scotland have a date with a drawing board.