AS the statisticians raced on the final whistle to confirm this to be a record Six Nations win for Wales and worst tournament defeat for the Scots, the latest in a history of disastrous rugby moments in this great venue had long ago exploded Scottish fervour.
What is it about the Millennium Stadium and Scotland? From Matt Williams’ bizarre Test introduction in 2004 to a first Six Nations red card for Scott Murray in 2006, the career- ending injury to Thom Evans and kidney-splitting damage to newly crowned “centurion” Chris Paterson in 2010, Scotland have not enjoyed trips to the great Welsh stadium.
Others have wreaked more pain on players’ bodies, but none have left a squad and its nation of supporters as embarrassed and demoralised as did this one.
The first 20 minutes was a good contest, with Scotland solid in scrum and lineout and competitive across the park, but Wales’ powerful back line, boasting six victorious British and Irish Lions, subdued the threat and stretched their legs in an attempt to buoy a Welsh support left flat by the drop-off in the title race after successive Six Nations crowns.
Scotland had suffered their first significant blow with the loss, to a head injury, of captain Kelly Brown in the ninth minute, Duncan Weir having opened the scoring and Dan Biggar levelling, while Brown was being led from the field to be replaced by Alasdair Strokosch.
Scotland had started brightly, with Jim Hamilton leading the pressure-charge on the Welsh half-backs and endearing himself to many by headbutting a Mike Phillips clearance kick, albeit without knowing much about it at the time.
Laidlaw missed a penalty in the 11th minute, but with Richie Gray and Ryan Wilson storming into the Welsh underbelly with fine runs, there was much to rouse the Scottish support. That was, until the 15th minute, when Liam Williams revealed himself to be both very different to Leigh Halfpenny but no poor substitute in finishing off a concerted period of attack in the Scots’ 22, the visitors finally running out of numbers due to continual, dynamic Welsh running that sucked in blue jerseys.
But Duncan Weir led the fightback, receiving swift ball from rucks and kicking Scotland deep into the corners, Max Evans and Dougie Fife were striving to find ways around the outside and Strokosch was one of several Scottish forwards to steal good ball from Welsh hands.
And then, in the 23rd minute, came the moment of recklessness from Stuart Hogg, the act that changed the whole game. The full-back had already attracted attention for diving onto Williams after he had gone to ground at the try, when he allowed his determination to show he was not intimidated by a team full of fellow Lions to get the better of him closing down a Biggar kick.
Hogg continued at the stand-off after Biggar had launched the ball high into the air from halfway, leaping late and catching the Welshman on the chin with his shoulder. Hogg was instantly called over by French referee Jerome Garces and shown a yellow card.
Of course, the game has changed in the past year to allow officials to study video replays, and study the clash again Garces duly did. On second appearance, in slow motion, it looked worse. Slowed down, Hogg’s intent seems clear and the Scotland player was called back by Garces and shown a red card.
This is within the laws now, the referee being allowed to consider and reconsider a judgment based on a video replay or advice from the television match official. Most of the near-74,000 inside the Millennium Stadium would have reached the same conclusion as Garces on second watch. It was only the third red card shown to a Scotland player, Nathan Hines suffering the first ignominy after throwing a punch to an American on tour in 2002, and Scott Murray enduring the same fate at the Millennium Stadium in 2006 after lashing out with a boot.
And this game was up, right there, right then, for Scotland. Dougie Fife, making his Scotland debut, had to cover full-back and wing – against two of the best opponents in world rugby – and the outstanding David Denton came out of the back row on defensive moves to help shore up the back line, but that left gaps elsewhere. The loss of one man cannot be covered in rugby as it can in football and Wales saw their chance to go for the jugular, their opportunity to bury some ghosts from a disappointing campaign and to finish this championship on a high.
Biggar recovered quickly and slotted the resultant penalty, Laidlaw missed again from 40 metres out, and George North and Jamie Roberts provided knockout blows with two quick tries that exposed Scotland’s lack of back-field cover in the six minutes before half-time.
Maybe the half-time interval could ease Wales’ hunger? Clearly, that was the hope of Scots around the stadium, and of the squad as coach Scott Johnson urged them inside to stick to their defensive structures, keep it tight and take the sting out of the Welsh attack.
However, with the pack firing and Gethin Jenkins a fine lead on the day he became Wales’ most-capped player with 105 Tests, just one minute into the second half North finished off another fine attack with a fourth Wales try and all hope evaporated.
Hooker Ross Ford came on and threw his first lineout over the top of his targets and Roberts finished off that period of Welsh turnover possession with a sixth try, still with 33 minutes of the game remaining.
There is credit in the manner in which Scotland then dug in, shell-shocked, demoralised, humiliated and probably wishing they could find an escape tunnel underground, but able to dominate possession and territory in the final half-hour, albeit when the game was over as a contest.
After missing a procession of key tackles on the Wales behemoths throughout the first 50 minutes, they applied themselves with renewed vigour – a Duncan Taylor tackle on Rhys Priestland typified the spirit and stopped another probable try – hung on to the ball better and for longer, and put Wales under real pressure with concerted attacks deep into the home half.
But little errors, the kind that have plagued their tournament, led to penalties or turnovers at crucial moments and ensured their supporters left without even the meagre consolation of a try. Wales had no such problem and finished off in style with a well-worked, record seventh score by replacement scrum-half Rhodri Williams with six minutes to go, the 14 standing Scots out on their feet having put so much into this game and this tournament, and received only humiliation.
Games are never straight- forward in this graveyard of Scottish hope, but the greatest frustration will be that few could argue against the notion that they got what they deserved.
Scorers: Wales – Tries: L Williams, North (2), Roberts (2), Faletau, R Williams. Pens: Biggar (2). Cons: Biggar (4), Hook. Scotland – Pen: Laidlaw.
Wales: L Williams; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North; D Biggar, M Phillips; G Jenkins, K Owens, R Jones, L Charteris, A W Jones, D Lydiate, S Warburton (capt), T Faletau. Subs: J Tipuric for Lydiate, R Williams for Phillips (both 54mins), R Hibbard for Owens, A Jones for R Jones, P James for Jenkins (all 58) J Hook for L Williams, J Ball for Charteris, R Priestland for Biggar (all 63).
Scotland: S Hogg; D Fife, A Dunbar, M Scott, M Evans; D Weir, G Laidlaw; R Grant, S Lawson, G Cross, R Gray, J Hamilton, R Wilson, K Brown (capt), D Denton. Subs: A Strokosch for Brown (9), E Murray for Cross (40), R Ford for Lawson, A Dickinson for Grant (both 46) T Swinson for Hamilton (55), C Cusiter for Laidlaw (62), D Taylor for Fife (67).