It wasn’t the Six Nations start that anyone anticipated or the one that Gregor Townsend wanted. His team were caught with their pants down by a scratch Welsh side that not only played Scotland at their own game of running rugby but gave them a lesson in accuracy and finishing. The worrying things for Scotland is that Wales could have had two or three more scores.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Scots especially after the successful autumn series. But the Six Nations is a very different animal and the visitors failed to adjust on the day.
Everyone knows how Townsend’s teams are going to play but there is an old adage about having to earn the right to throw the ball wide and yesterday in Cardiff we found out why? It was the only thing the Scots did, throw he ball wide, not very well and without much thought given to field position or anything else. It was the only question the Scots asked all afternoon, there was no ‘plan B’, and once the Welsh answered in the affirmative that was that.
The opening exchanges were played as if someone has pressed the video fast forward button but it was the home side that reaped the benefits racing into a 14 point lead after as many minutes; a blow to the Scots’ solar plexus and psyche.
Gareth Davies gave Wales the dream start, darting out of the defensive line to snaffle an interception pass from Ali Price and race away 60-odd metres, beating Chris Harris to the Scottish line. Worse was to follow as the Scots were guilty all game of jamming in, defending far too narrow, especially given Wales were concentrating their attacks in the wider channels.
A Scottish put in at a scrum was reversed for a squint feed, Russell’s tackle on Rhys Patchell probably saved a try on the short side but when Wales moved the ball to the right the red shirts were lining up to score it, the honour falling to Halfpenny.
The Welsh full-back was a revelation, a throwback to the young adventurous, attack-minded player who promised so much. Widely dismissed now as a defensive option, Halfpenny found his offensive instincts remained intact despite a decade of “Warrenball” and he used his old pace and panache to good effect, finishing with 24 points to his credit.
The contrast with Russell was instructive. The stand-off is Scotland’s talisman and when he misfires the team does too. There is a fine line between a high tempo game and chucking the ball about willy nilly and Russell danced a none-too-merry jig either side of that border all match.
At one point the fly-half was throwing dummies behind his own goal line and while Stuart Hogg’s boot extracted him from that particular mess he dug numerous holes for himself elsewhere. Shortly after Wales’ second score Russell passed the ball to no one, Evans hacked ahead and Huw Jones, one of the few standouts for Scotland along with Stuart McInally and Hamish Watson, had to scramble to save the fly-half’s blushes. Russell’s cross field kick to Seymour from his own 22 at the start of the second half earned Scotland exactly five metres of territory and at what risk if the winger hadn’t performed miracles to secure it? Russell wasn’t the only sinner but it was typical of the uneven game we have come to expect from the stand-off, only magnified, and doubly frustrating because of that.
On the odd occasion Scotland earned some field position someone would mess it up. Byron McGuigan knocked on, got isolated and got turned over in the Welsh red zone. Chris Harris looked horribly uncomfortable all afternoon and Scotland looked better with Jones restored to outside centre after Peter Horne came off the bench. Some of yesterday’s ‘finishers’ will surely be next Sunday’s starters when France visit Murrayfield.
Townsend went to the bench as early as the 48th minute by which time Halfpenny has extended the lead to 20 with a pair of penalties. Greig Laidlaw was one of the subs and while Scotland were crying out for someone with his cool head the game was already gone.
With the crowd making themselves heard, Wales went about the systematic dismantling of the visitors, pummelling the Scottish line until Halfpenny had his second try, the Scots running out of defenders on the left flank, winger Josh Adams surplus to requirements.
Ten minutes from time Hogg and Sean Maitland combined to create a half chance only for Aled Davies to barrel into Horne off the ball. At the other end of the field the Scots again found themselves short of numbers wide out, this time on the right flank, and winger Evans took advantage to dot down acrobatically in the corner.
Horne scored a sneaky try at the death but only after the big men repeatedly rumbled the ball into the heart of the Welsh defence. The home fans were already streaming out of the stadium, job done.