A FIRST Six Nations three-in-a-row remains out of reach for Scotland after another frustrating performance that owed something to the modern-day ills of referee interpretation and everything to a streetwise Welsh side.
It was reassuring to hear Scotland’s interim head coach Scott Johnson, a former Wales chief, strive to avoid criticism of the South African referee Craig Joubert afterwards, but also right that he questioned the validity of the scrum in modern rugby. The set-piece has become the greatest, most annoying blackhead on the face of rugby union, one driving away supporters old and new, and there was something horribly apposite that it came exactly 50 years after supporters had trudged out of Murrayfield similarly debating the need for law changes.
That followed the 1963 Scotland-Wales encounter which was plagued by Welsh stand-off Clive Rowlands’ kicking almost every ball to touch. It resulted in a world record of 111 lineouts in 80 minutes, and finished 6-0 to Wales.
On Saturday, there was another unwanted world record, that of 18 penalties being kicked for goal, 13 hitting the target, from 30 penalties and free-kicks awarded in total. That was why this match rarely chugged out of second gear.
At its heart lay a scrum debacle that almost brought the unique sight of a hooker being held responsible for his pack’s scrummaging woes and shown the yellow card. The most common expression at full-time was one of utter bemusement, from players to coaches and supporters. In simple terms, Wales were too smart for Scotland at the scrum. They played the referee perfectly and negated the scrum dominance Scotland exerted over Italy and Ireland.
The Welsh pack effectively won the game in the first minute by staying still at the first scrum when expected to drive forward, which left the Scots pack driving into them. That provoked Joubert to give Wales a free-kick, for what he termed early engagement. Wales opted for another scrum, with the same result. Now Joubert warned Scotland, with the game just three minutes old, that he would award a penalty if it happened again. So Scotland stood still, Wales drove at them, the scrum collapsed and Joubert whistled for a Wales penalty.
Wales were instantly three points to the good but, more importantly, had placed a concern in the minds of Joubert and the Scottish front row. The official penalised Wales at scrums later in the first half, but not when it really counted. Some brilliant solo skills by stand-off Duncan Weir near half-time handed Scotland a scrum just five metres from the Welsh line, it collapsed and again Joubert blew for Wales. That was a key moment, Scotland’s best attacking opportunity in the game.
It appears, on reviewing the scrum that the Scots did not engage early, as Joubert claimed. The Wales front row just crumpled. But perception in a split-second is everything. Clever, Wales.
At a scrum near halfway moments later exactly the same thing happened, and Joubert penalised Wales prop Paul James, which Laidlaw turned into three points. It all exasperated Scotland hooker Ross Ford, props Euan Murray and Ryan Grant, skipper Kelly Brown and Greig Laidlaw, the scrum-half, who by the finish wanted to throttle Joubert.
By then, the official had threatened Ford with the sin-bin, so Scotland stood back and Wales drove to more penalties. No wonder Ford said afterwards: “It didn’t seem to matter what we did, we were penalised.”
So much for an entertaining spectacle of a Six Nations match. Instead, this game fuelled the malaise that has enveloped the 2013 Six Nations with standards plummeting after a promising opening weekend. That will worry British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland, seen huddling in Murrayfield’s West Stand on Saturday in a big coat and woollen hat fighting the Edinburgh chill.
While southern hemisphere players are honing skills in a fast, multi-phase game on harder pitches, three months before the Lions head to Australia their northern hemisphere counterparts are battling icy winds and rain, struggling to produce any phases of attacking rugby at all.
There was much to praise in Scotland’s defensive work and 21-year-old stand-off Weir had a solid first Test start, mostly kicking well from hand, sometimes brilliantly, delivering good kick-offs and eagerly seeking work.
But his great strength is his kicking and, encouraged by wingers to aim wide for space, at times that dissipated momentum. At other times it relieved pressure and gained territory in the wind and rain but, with the plethora of offsides, ruck infringements and scrum penalties, it also hampered Scotland’s attempts to build any attack of note and made it too easy for Wales.
Scotland conceded 18 penalties and free-kicks. It is now 63 in four matches. The general target is fewer than ten per game, and, even though he let Scotland off the hook for a while by missing three of his first four kicks at goal, Halfpenny nailed the Scots with 18 decisive points in the second half.
Greig Laidlaw kicked superbly to keep Scotland in touch, his first two penalties putting them 6-3 ahead, before Welsh hooker Richard Hibbard dived over in the 22nd minute for the game’s only try, wing George North having created the chance by stepping inside Richie Gray on halfway.
Halfpenny’s conversion put Wales 10-6 up but, after a brilliant, soaring steal by Gray – one of three by the dominant Scottish lineout, hence Welsh reluctance to kick out – Laidlaw twice bisected the uprights before half-time; stunning long-range efforts dipping over the crossbar to put Scotland into a 12-10 lead.
However, by then Scotland’s knack of following one step forward with two back had reared. They had lost blond totem Gray to a torn hamstring, after 28 minutes, with Alastair Kellock coming on. A fine strip of the ball by Johnnie Beattie, a lineout steal and super kick to touch by Weir and then and exquisite chip-and-chase by the No.10 and tackle of Dan Biggar behind his own line, had the full Murrayfield roaring its approval. But, that was when the controversial scrum decisions and Scottish frailty surfaced to fuel Welsh confidence. Beattie lost concentration, and the ball, at the restart, and Jim Hamilton marched his long legs over a ruck, offside, for Halfpenny to send Wales into the break buoyed by a 13-12 lead.
Wales lost their skipper Ryan Jones to injury early in the second half but brought on Justin Tipuric so had openside flankers on both sides of the scrum, against Scotland’s more one-paced back row of blindsides. Sam Warburton was excellent and picked up Man of the Match but, with Tipuric also superb, it was a reward for his team’s shrewd ability to slow and snaffle Scottish ball while staying on the right side of Joubert but not always on the right side of the law.
There were flashes of optimism for the home support when their exciting back three, Sean Maitland, Tim Visser and Hogg, got their hands on the ball.Sean Lamont also had fine moments in attack and defence in his 75th Test but Wales’ defence was as tight and focused as their scrum, superbly forcing the dangermen into cul-de-sacs or backwards to suck the dynamism from the Scottish attacks.
Still, Wales themselves were not accurate enough on the front foot to seal victory until late on as the game see-sawed. Laidlaw missed a 50-metre penalty from a Toby Faletau high tackle and a Beattie ruck infringement let Halfpenny put Wales 16-12 up.
Laidlaw converted a penalty for a collapsed maul but then Halfpenny turned an early scrum engagement and Hamilton holding-on penalty into a 22-15 Welsh lead.
Laidlaw responded with three points rewarding aggressive Scottish attack – prop Ryan Grant had another fine game in the loose – but missed a second kick, from a ruck penalty against Warburton with Joubert strangely unwilling to show yellow cards, despite the penalty count rocketing.
That missed kick mattered as, with 12 minutes to go, instead of the scoreboard closing to 21-22, an offside and collapsed scrum let Halfpenny kick Wales to a decisive 28-18 win.
Scotland finished strongly, with debutant Ryan Wilson on for the tireless Beattie but, even with Welsh prop Paul James yellow-carded, the visitors manned the barricades well, and the most futile sound of the day – Joubert’s shrieking whistle, for another holding-on on the ground – hammered the tin lid on the Murrayfield excitement and talk of a Scottish revival.
Be it scrum laws or penalty madness, Scott Johnson’s men have work to do to become title contenders and the IRB a job on their hands to save the souls of rugby supporters.