YOU picked up your ticket for the match from a brick outhouse and you thought: was this what lay ahead? After a fraught week of head-knocks and hand-wringing, of worries about the game turning into another game – American football – and getting too one-dimensional and just too damn brutal, you wondered: were Scotland going to run into backs who look like forwards and forwards made of concrete all day long?
This was a battle of first-weekend losers so both simply had to win but it was more than simply nostalgia for this fixture’s grand history of flair-filled matches which made us hope that victory could be achieved with a twinkle of the toes, a sparkling sidestep, someone running round an opponent and not straight through him. Rugby needed this, too.
Jamie Roberts is the hulking Welsh outside back who most gives the impression he could do a fine job in the middle row. Roberts likes a tackle, loves making a nonsense of them, thundering ever onwards. This is his way, but before the game he did acknowledge there was another way: Stuart Hogg had a “vicious” sidestep, he admitted, and in previous meetings this had left him “red-faced”. One of the great running full-backs of world rugby, that was Hoggy.
Very first passage of play, a giant Jamie Roberts-sized hole was smashed in the Scottish back line. It had taken the centre all of 55 minutes to pull off such a stunt against England. Then Roberts battered Richie Gray – hit him with 50 shades of prime Welsh beef – and you wondered if the Scottish lock would remember it was Sunday and there was a game on, but he was quickly back in the fray.
All of Wales had groaned when England administered the choke-tackle and defeat on their red-shirted favourites. But Scotland groaned too. A throttled dragon was going to be in a foul mood in Edinburgh, desperate to show it could still breathe fire and scorch some backsides. Who in the Scotland team was going to spear the dragon? Geoff Cross certainly looked the part. With his epic beard the prop stood squat proud at the midway point between Pixar Studios’ version of an ankle-nipping Caledonian gonk and that of the Daily Record cartoon page.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
But it was the well-publicised Hogg who brought the stadium alive, providing the player some redemption into the bargain. Last time out against Wales – that record 51-3 defeat – Hogg had been the one left red-faced when he was red-carded. He must have been desperate to atone and when a smart Finn Russell turnover found Richie Gray, whose pass was every bit as nifty as Euan Murray’s for our try against France, the little flying machine simply burned up the yards from the halfway line.
Wales had the territory, they had the possession, but Scotland – with the defence redoubtable and Russell inventive with boot and through hand, catching awkward kicks dropping over his shoulder and requiring just one palm to offload – were making a little go a long way. The stand-off sprang Alex Dunbar but unfortunately Mark Bennett couldn’t grasp his delivery. Rhys Webb would show him how to keep hold of a zipped pass a short while later.
Russell was sin-binned when the flying Dan Biggar clattered into him. Russell turned side-on and you might have wondered if he could have done any more to minimise the collision with his recklessly careering opponent, but a spot of stationary cycling was to be the punishment. It would be a costly ten minutes, Wales scoring a point for each of them, including Webb’s juggle-and-try.
Wales themselves would then go down to 14 men, Jonathan Davies the player yellow-carded, but despite some fierce Scottish pressure, with Hogg carving two terrific breaks and Cross dragging his beard along the turf to make progress close to the tryline, the Welsh defence held firm. At that point we wondered if a familiar tale of pluck, but no prize, was starting to pan out.
How many times can Scotland accept that slightly patronising pat on the back and be told that, yes, they’re progressing quite nicely and could do very well in the World Cup – no, not this year’s tournament but the one after that? They tried hard to force their way back into the game early in the second half but Wales had ramped up the power-play. The Scottish rearguard had performed heroically but was now creaking with every charge, and with Roberts not dropping one iota in his ferociousness, there were plenty of them. I’m sure even the big man laments the passing of the sidestep, given his nation pretty much cornered the market in them back in the 1970s, but he will argue it’s a different game now, and he’s more than effective at the new version.
The try that Wales didn’t get certainly came straight out of American football, with Jake Ball and man-of-the-match Alun Wyn Jones unceremoniously taking out Ron Harley to let in the speedster, Liam Williams. Scotland seemed to take heart from this let-off and although the world’s best goal-kicker, Leigh Halfpenny, was keeping Wales in front, the home side summoned up one last, valiant effort. In a period of the game when Scotland usually wilt through lack of strength of depth, they pinned back the Welsh through umpteen phases, but the red line wouldn’t break, to the relief of the daffodil-waving contingent from the valleys.
Then Hogg showed he still had some fuel in the tank for one more thrilling surge, but Bennett and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne couldn’t quite finish things off. Scotland got the score their gutsy play deserved, but Jim Hamilton’s try and another accomplished goal-kick out of many by Greig Laidlaw, simply made the final result more painful. A different kind of pain from the last time we played Wales, but pain all the same.