Allan Massie: No such thing as a ‘dead rubber’

Allan Massie. Picture TSPL
Allan Massie. Picture TSPL
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Wales will generally be expected to beat Scotland this afternoon. They are at home, and we haven’t won in Cardiff since 2002, although we were desperately unfortunate in 2010.

The form guide also favours Wales. Both teams lost to Ireland and England but Wales beat France and Italy quite comfortably in Cardiff, while we just snatched victory in Rome and let it slip against France in the last two minutes at Murrayfield. Moreover, the Welsh players in front of their home crowd will be eager to make amends for their rather feeble show at Twickenham.

Some will say that this sort of end-of-tournament match, with both teams out of the title reckoning, is a dead rubber and doesn’t matter all that much. But with summer tours and autumn internationals, when players may win as many caps in one year as their predecessors did in three or four, each international should be regarded as an important event in its own right.

That is certainly how it used to be and, indeed, one of Scotland finest and most memorable victories came in Cardiff in circumstances much like today’s. That was in 1982 when Ireland had already won the Triple Crown. A joyous afternoon resulted, starting off with Roger Baird’s audacious run from defence and concluding with a 34-18 win. Amazingly, Scotland scored five tries to the Welsh one. Something similar this afternoon would be welcome.

That may have been a dead rubber game, but it did wonders for that Scottish team, who went on to beat Australia in Brisbane a couple of months later. The 1983 Five Nations was disappointing, partly because John Rutherford missed the first three games, but it ended with that rare achievement, victory at Twickenham – so rare indeed that it hasn’t been repeated since, and 11 of the players who ran riot at Cardiff featured in the side which won the Grand Slam in 1984.

One has the impression that both Ireland and England had done their preparation thoroughly and worked out how to beat Warren Gatland’s Wales. The Welsh have based their game on power and efficiency at the breakdown. In their own half they have usually kicked deep. In the opposition half, played what has become known as Warrenball. This sees a big man in midfield, usually Jamie Roberts, taking the ball at speed and driving hard over the gain-line. It is then quickly recycled to a forward coming round on a peel-type run. The manoeuvre is repeated until a gap or a mismatch in defence appears. It is simple but often very effective.

If it came badly unstuck at Twickenham, this was partly because the Welsh kicking from hand, in the first half especially, was very poor, the English catcher almost never being put under any pressure. But it was also because England, like Ireland, stifled the Warrenball game. They committed only one or two players to a ruck initiated by the Welsh, while stationing men either side of it to prevent the forward coming round on the peel-run from breaching the gain-line. Then, any time one of the big Welsh backs got the ball, he was tackled low before getting up speed. It helped of course that, as in Dublin, neither the Welsh set-scrum nor line-out was functioning well. Consequently, life was gradually squeezed out of the Welsh game. Only Leigh Halfpenny’s goal-kicking kept them in the match.

Halfpenny is missing today after injuring himself in making a try-saving tackle on Luther Burrell but Dan Biggar, who has replaced Rhys Priestland at stand-off, is a pretty good goal-kicker and, if Scotland concede penalties well into their own half as often as they have done this season, Wales won’t need a kicker as good as Halfpenny to keep the scoreboard ticking over.

No doubt on a few occasions when what looked like a 50-50 penalty decision went against us, we got what Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot called “the fuzzy end of the lollipop”. But it is absurd to suggest that referees are targeting Scotland. They play what they see. Admittedly – give a dog a bad name – if a team gets a reputation for illegalities, referees may well be influenced, just as police are more likely to stop and search someone who fits criminal profiling. But the remedy is in the players’ own hands. Or, more exactly, the remedy is for players to release the ball when tackled, keep their hands off the ball on the ground and release the tackled player and roll away quickly. As for set-scrum penalties, trying to conform to the laws and praying that the referee has his eye on your immediate opponent may be the best a prop, any prop, can do. Geoff Cross must certainly hope that today’s referee, Jerome Garces, takes the same view of his opposite number Gethin Jenkins’s technique as Alain Rolland and Romain Poite did in Wales’s last two internationals.

Wales will start favourites, but, if we maintain the improvement shown against Italy and France, we might just manage to upset them. After Dublin and Twickenham, Welsh confidence may be a bit brittle. It probably won’t be, but you never know. Victory by a single point would be fine, a repeat of the 1982 game would have us in seventh heaven.