Scotland fell to their third successive loss in the Six Nations, finishing second to Wales in what proved a topsy-turvy afternoon of nervy entertainment.
The home side were mild-mannered Clark Kent in the first half, something akin to Supermen in the second. The only obvious solution is for coach Gregor Townsend to give his half-time call to arms before the game kicks off. Everyone in blue, fans and players alike, were left wondering “what if?” and not for the first time this season.
The difference between the two teams was defence. Wales have one, the best in the world rugby statistically speaking, while Scotland’s was, well… meh. Wales scored two tries in the first half when they had the whip hand and were not made to sweat terribly hard for either of them.
In contrast, Scotland enjoyed 75 per cent of second-half possession and 78 per cent of the territorial domination after the break and managed no more than one try in all that time, a poor conversion ratio of possession into points, although given the enforced backline changes it wasn’t a complete surprise. Time and again the Scots created a half chance only for a red shirt to slam the door hard in their face.
Townsend may rue the decision to kick at least three, maybe four second-half penalties into the corner in a forlorn attempt to bully their way over the Welsh line because taking those nine/12 points would have got Scotland over the line.
The home team didn’t have to search too hard for problems and losing the Welsh kick-off wasn’t the start that Townsend would have wanted.
Tommy Seymour and Blair Kinghorn were early casualties, adding to Scotland’s long injury list, and were replaced by Byron McGuigan and Adam Hastings well before half-time. Scotland eventually ran out of reserves, so starting scrum-half Ali Price finished this match on the left wing after try-scorer Darcy Graham followed Seymour down the tunnel late in the second half.
Finn Russell kicked two penalties in the first half but Wales responded with two well-executed tries.
The first went to left winger Josh Adams when Scotland simply ran out of defenders. Kinghorn was the last man but Worcester winger Adams stood him up before rounding the big full-back like he had put down roots.
The second Welsh score arrived in very different circumstances, as if the visiting coach was giving his old favourite “Warrenball” one last outing before he steps down after the World Cup. Wales ran through 23 phases inside the Scots’ 22. It was route one, physical, hard-nosed, ugly, international rugby, before Welsh centre Jonathan Davies eventually crashed through Peter Horne’s tackle for the try on the half-hour mark.
The Scots were lucky not to concede again immediately before the break. Adams was well tackled by Hastings in the corner before the winger knocked on to bring the first 40 to a close, much to the Scots’ relief.
Whatever the home players imbibed at half-time should be packaged and marketed because it will make millions.
The Scots emerged for the second period utterly transformed, Townsend’s warm words of encouragement doubtless ringing in their ears, and proceeded to make a game of it.
Allan Dell’s 40-metre charge upfield kick-started the Scottish offensive and his electric break gave the Scots high field position which they kept for almost the entire half.
Russell dug deep into his box of tricks, firing bullets short, long and out the back. He dinked one kick cross-field and another one over the rush defence and into the Welsh dead ball zone, but Wales centre Hadleigh Parkes was the first to react. Wingers popped up in midfield, Hastings weaved one way then another and the blue forwards huffed and puffed with admirable effort, Stuart McInally and Hamish Watson to the fore, although the latter could have been introduced off the bench a little sooner such was his awesome impact.
The Scots kicked into the corner and muscled their way over the Welsh line but Grant Gilchrist was turned turtle, unable to ground the ball. Hastings thought he was over for a try, Dan Biggar thought otherwise but eventually the Murrayfield crowd had something to shout about.
From another driven lineout, McGuigan came off his left wing to create the extra man, Hastings entered the line from full-back and the Scottish backs finally managed to buy Darcy Graham half a yard of space on the right flank which is all the little Hawick winger needs. His try brought the score to 11-15 with one quarter of the match still to play and the crowd baying for Welsh blood.
It seemed for a while that the wind had shifted to fill Scotland’s sails and that another score would settle this one in their favour.
Instead Wales’ dogged defence held firm and Gareth Anscombe stretched their lead by another three points with the last kick of the match.
It all means that on the final day of the championship Wales will face Ireland for a Grand Slam while Scotland go up against England, and the weight of history, at Twickenham.