STUART BATHGATE @ Murrayfield
SCOTLAND were denied what would have been a most improbable victory as a second-half fightback fell just short. They looked down and out at half-time after going nine points down and suffering a rash of injuries, but dominated the second half only to register just one score, a try by Darcy Graham.
Over the piece Wales did just enough to keep their Grand Slam dream alive, looking more incisive in attack and more decisive in defence. But they only rarely played with the panache they showed in their superb win over England a fortnight earlier, and have a lot of hard thinking to do before they meet Ireland next week.
Gregor Townsend also has much to ponder before his team visit Twickenham, not least being to how to replace those members of the squad who do not recover fitness in time. In terms of how his team played, however, the head coach must be encouraged by the endeavour and self-belief they showed, even if the error count was far too high.
Hamish Watson got an earlier than expected return to the Test arena, coming on after eight minutes as a blood replacement for Jamie Ritchie before the game had really settled down. Scotland had had the territorial advantage in that opening spell, and when they returned to the action, they were awarded a penalty for offside, from which Finn Russell opened the scoring.
Wales had done nothing in attack up to that point, but they soon replied with a try that came all too easily. An attack down the left was marked man for man by the Scots defence, but then Blair Kinghorn allowed Josh Adams perhaps no more than half a metre too much space on the outside, and that was all the winger needed to skip clear round the outside and score, with Gareth Anscombe converting.
Watson was then himself replaced by Fraser Brown after taking a knock, before Ritchie returned in place of the hooker. After an inspired break by Graham had been stopped five metres short of the posts, the injury disruption continued when Tommy Seymour went off with what looked like a rib injury.
Russell and Anscombe exchanged penalties at the midway point of the half as the contest continued to have a nervous edge to it. Kinghorn was clearly in difficulties with a leg injury sustained in a tackle as Wales then went back on the attack, but before he could be replaced the visitors stretched their advantage in a move that lasted more than 20 phases.
They moved the ball from right to left as they probed for a weakness, Hadleigh Parkes gained valuable ground with an excellent line, and then George North decided to go for the line himself when the overlap was on. The score was only delayed, however, as speedy recycling saw Scotland run out of defenders, with Kinghorn and a last-ditch diving tackle by Pete Horne being unable to prevent Jonathan Davies from crossing for an unconverted try.
Adam Hastings came on at full-back as Kinghorn limped off, and although Wales were on top for the rest of the half, they failed to score again, with another Anscombe penalty coming crashing back off a post a few minutes before the break. Even so, a nine-point lead appeared to be a more than comfortable cushion to take into the second half.
Scotland did what they could to get back into the game in the third quarter, and a break by Allan Dell briefly looked promising before being snuffed out by the defence. Ten minutes in, two kickable penalties in quick succession were sent to touch, and from the second lineout, Grant Gilchrist crossed the line only to be held up.
The attack soon resumed, and after a third penalty went to touch, the score came at last. A fine piece of sleight of hand by Russell put Byron McGuigan through on a half-break, Hastings took it on to within six or seven metres of the line, then Graham finished it off in the right corner. The stand-off failed to convert, but from looking all but buried, Scotland were right back in the match with 20 minutes to go.
Wales had hardly featured as an attacking force in the second half, and when they did get into the opposition 22, they knocked on. Graham then became the latest Scot to be forced off by injury, with Price moving to the wing.
Going into the final 10 minutes of an increasingly dramatic encounter, the home team were still well on top as they chased the score to take them back into the lead. Yet, while Watson in particular gained valuable ground with most of his carries, the breakthrough just would not come.
Wales finally relieved the pressure when, after a kick through, Ali Price was penalised for tackling Anscombe off the ball. With three minutes to go at that point, the Welsh were able to slow play down on the fringes of the Scots 22, nudging their way forward and eventually getting a penalty right in front of the posts. Anscombe sent it straight between the posts.
Scotland: B Kinghorn (A Hastings 31); T Seymour (B McGuigan 21), N Grigg, P Horne, D Graham (G Laidlaw 65); F Russell, A Price; A Dell, S McInally (F Brown 69), W Nel (S Berghan 65), G Gilchrist, J Gray (B Toolis 65), M Bradbury, J Ritchie, J Strauss (H Watson 65).
Wales: L Williams (D Biggar 48); G North, J Davies, H Parkes (O Watkin 74), J Adams; G Anscombe, G Davies (A Davies 70); R Evans (N Smith 62), K Owens (E Dee 66), T Francis (D Lewis 66), A Beard (J Ball 62), A Jones, J Navidi, J Tipuric, R Moriarty (A Wainwright 70).
Scorers: Scotland: Try: Graham. Pens: Russell 2.
Wales: Tries: Adams, J Davies. Con: Anscombe. Pens: Anscombe 2.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 3-0, 3-5, 3-7, 6-7, 6-10, 6-15 half-time, 11-15, 11-18.
Referee: P Gauzere (France).