DAVID BARNES @ The Principality Stadium
NOT for the first time – and doubtless not for the last – the promise of Autumn gave way to the harsh reality of Spring, and a rugby nation which has been through this painful process more times than anyone would care to count has been left scratching their collective heads and wondering how they managed to fall into the same trap again. This time the optimism lasted for six minutes, and when the wheels came off it was to the sort of spectacular level which we all hoped had been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Scotland spoke during the week about the importance of silencing the fervent home support early on and they actually made a pretty good fist of achieving that in the opening five minutes, with Jonny Gray and Stuart McInally both making thundering runs up the middle of the park. But then Ali Price lost perspective in his haste to stretch the Welsh defence and sent a long flat pass towards a stationary Jon Welsh, which his opposite number Gareth Davies had read a mile off. There’s nothing like conceding a 60-yard interception try to knock the led out of your pencil.
Leigh Halfpenny added the conversion and Scotland were still digesting the bitter pill of that score when Aaron Shingler broke clear, linking with Cory Hill, Rob Evans and then Alun Wyn Jones on a rampage towards the try-line – but Steff Evans couldn’t hold onto the scoring pass under the shadow of the posts and the visitors were off the hook … for the time being.
A free-kick conceded by Scotland at the subsequent scrum relinquished vital possession; and, more worryingly in the context of the next 70-odd minutes, it suggested that pre-match concerns about the viability of the blue team’s set-piece might be well founded.
An excellent last-gasp tackle from Chris Harris brought Rhys Patchell down as he went on an arching run to the line, but the ball was recycled and Alun Wyn Jones sucked in Scotland’s midfield defence before releasing Scott Williams, who sent Halfpenny in for his first try in 38 games.
Scotland were now really on the ropes. They managed to survive through to half time without any more catastrophes, but their nerves were shot. Time after time they squandered promising possession by trying to force the issue. On a different day, these 50-50 passes might have come off, but it wasn’t happening here and they needed a back-up plan.
Things didn’t improve at the start of the second half for Scotland. A miscued clearance from Finn Russell allowed Wales to pile on the pressure and captain John Barclay gave away a penalty in front of the sticks for trying to play the ball on the deck – blatantly and right under the nose of the referee. Halfpenny took the three points, and then took three more in the 48th minute, when Barclay was again guilty of skulduggery on the floor of a ruck.
Gregor Townsend started to empty the bench – sending on experienced campaigners like Grieg Laidlaw, Ryan Wilson and Sean Maitland – but he was shutting the barn door long after the horse had bolted.
The fervour of the opening 20 minutes inside the Principality Stadium had now subsided. It was still noisy. It’s always noisy inside this great rugby cathedral. But the tension was gone. We had waited all week for an epic battle – but this now felt like not much more than a warm-up match for Wales looking at bigger challenges ahead.
Halfpenny piled on more misery with his second and Wales’ third try, courtesy of some deft hands from Steff Evans, and there was still a quarter of the match to go. There was a minor reprieve when the TMO ruled that Huw Jones and Stuart McInally had managed to stop Wyn Jones grounding the ball over the line, and another when Alun Wyn Jones broke through midfield but Gareth Anscombe couldn’t collect his pass with a clear run to the whitewash.
Not only was the scrum under serious pressure but the line-out – which hadn’t been good all day – had careered completely off the rails. The defence had gone into sleepwalk mode when Steff Evans dived in at the corner to secure the bonus point.
No matter how depressing this experience was from a Scottish perspective, the excellence of Evans’ finish was something to marvel at – diving in at the corner and stretching one-handed to ground the ball under pressure from Stuart Hogg and Jones.
Scotland finally managed a period of pressure inside the Welsh 22 during the final five minutes. It was – literally – the first time they had been in possession inside opposition territory at any time in the second-half. And they avoided the humiliation of being zeroed when Pete Horne darted in. There wasn’t any real comfort to be taken from that late score.
Wales: L Halfpenny; J Adams, S Williams (O Watkin 70), H Parkes, S Evans; R Patchell (G Anscombe 63), G Davies (A Davies 65); R Evans (W Jones 50), K Owens (E Dee 63), S Lee (T Francis 50), C Hill (B Davies 55), A Wyn Jones, A Shingler, J Navidi, R Moriarty (J Tipuric 64).
Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, C Harris (P Horne 54), H Jones, B McGuigan (S Maitland 54); F Russell, A Price (G Laidlaw 48); G Reid (J Bhatti 48-75), S McInally (S Lawson 69), J Welsh (M McCallum 64), J Gray, B Toolis (G Gilchrist 54), J Barclay©, H Watson, R Wilson (R Wilson 48).
Wales: Tries: G Davies, Halfpenny 2, S Evans; Con: Halfpenny 4; Pen: Halfpenny.
Scotland: Try: Horne; Con: Russell.
Scoring sequence (Wales first): 5-0; 7-0; 12-0; 14-0 (h-t) 17-0; 20-0; 25-0; 27-0; 32-0; 34-0; 34-5; 34-7
Referee: P Gauzere (France)