DAVID BARNES @ Principality Stadium
A SLIGHTLY different script but the same depressing plot-line as Scotland contributed heartily to a high-drama production in Cardiff but once again ended up the hapless antiheroes with only a losing bonus-point to show for all their endeavour. Meanwhile, Wales ride off into the sunset with renewed hope for this Six Nations campaign, which started badly with that heavy defeat in Dublin last week but now offers all sorts of exciting opportunities.
Let’s not go down the ‘if only’ route. Had Finn Russell not stuck out a hand to deliberately knock-on as Wales bombarded the Scottish line with just over 10 minutes to go then things may indeed have panned out very differently. But that did happen. It was a yellow-card. And Dan Biggar showed all the composure you get from 100 Test caps worth of experience to nail the drop-goal which decided the match.
In any 80 minutes of rugby, a myriad of marginal incidents fall one way or another, and the key to success is getting into the position where more of these siding-door moments go your team’s way, and Scotland did not achieve that here.
Scotland started positively, with Matt Fagerson brushing off Taine Basham in the first minute to take play into the Welsh 22, but Darcy Graham was stripped in contact and Owen Watkin led the break-out, supported byBiggar and Tomos Williams, and Stuart Hogg was lucky not to be sanctioned for a deliberate knock-on.
WP Nel was penalised for collapsing at the resulting scrum and Biggar nudged Wales into a nerve-settling 3-0 lead, thenRussell compounded Scotland’s frustration by kicking the restart out on the full, and the hosts were right back on the offensive to claim another three points through a not-rolling-away penalty. The game was not yet eight minutes old.
A wonderful flat pass from Ali Price which sent Duhan van de Merwe scuttling up the left touchline ignited the Scottish fight-back, and the move was finished on the opposite side of the park 17 phases later when a classic Russell miss-two gave Darcy Graham the chink of space he needed to scramble past Louis Rees-Zammitt and dot down in the corner.
Russell missed the tricky conversion but nailed a penalty from in front of the posts a few minutes later when Welsh debutant Jac Morgan were penalised for chasing from in front of the kicker, and the Scotland quickly repeated the trick when Wales were penalised for coming in at the side to slow a line-out maul.
That was a good 10-minute spell for Scotland but the fire which was being snorted out of Welsh nostrils at kick-off hadn’t been extinguished as the rain swept down through the open roof at the Principality Stadium, and the hosts struck next when a fearsome period of pressure yielded a penalty against Grant Gilchrist for falling on the wrong side of a tackler, and Biggar kicked the easy points.
But that score was almost immediately cancelled out by Russell after a Hamish Watson jackal earned a holding-on penalty for Scotland against Basham, who had been trying to run a sloppy line-out overthrow away from Wales’ danger zone.
A brilliant 50-22 from Liam Williams swung momentum of this pendulous game back towards Wales and Scotland were penalised again for lying on the wrong side – it was Sam Skinner this time – prompting a team warning from referee Nic Berry. Biggar kicked to the corner and the red juggernaut rolled into gar for a Tomas Francis try, which squared the match with just over half an hour played – and that is the way it stayed until half-time.
Scotland lost Matt Fagerson to a leg injury in 31 minutes, and Magnus Bradbury made a quick impact off the bench with a couple of thunderous carries.
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Scotland struck first after the break when another long passage of play, bristling with intent and featuring powerful surges from Sione Tuipulotu and Graham, eventually yielded a not-rolling away penalty for Russell to kick from in front of the posts.
There was a comedy interlude when Russell attempted a 50-yard drop-goal attempt, which at least managed to make it into the Welsh 22, before Biggar squared it again when George Turner– one third of Scotland’s front-row bomb-squad which had been deployed off the bench on 44 minutes – was penalised for offside.
The 62nd minute brought Rory Darge his long-awaited international debut off the bench in place of Jonny Gray, but it wasn’t the glorious experience he will have spent years dreaming of.
When Turner conceded another penalty, this time for playing the ball while off his feet, Biggar’ long-range penalty rebounded back off the bar, and Alex Cuthbert was first on the scene to scoop up the loose ball. Chris Harris managed to snuff out the immediate threat, but Wales kept their foot on the throttle and the TMO was required to rule that Cuthbert’s foot had strayed into touch as he dived for glory in the corner a few phases later.
The try was chalked off, but Russell was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on earlier on the move and Wales ran the penalty, which created the platform for Biggar to kick the drop-goal which edged his team back into the lead with 10 minutes to go.
Scotland huffed and puffed right to the end, and they managed to pierce Wales’ red line defence near halfway on a couple of occasions, but they couldn’t break right through, and you’d have thought the home side had won another Grand Slam when the final whistle sounded.
Wales: L Williams; A Cuthbert, O Watkin, N Tompkins (J Davies 67), L Rees-Zammit; D Biggar (C Sheedy, 78), T Williams; W Jones (G Thomas 64), R Elias (D Lake 64), T Francis (D Lewis 59), W Rowlands (S Davies 75), A Beard, T Basham, J Morgan, R Moriarty (A Wainwright 57).
Scotland: S Hogg; D Graham, C Harris, S Tuipulotu (B Kinghorn 70), D van der Merwe (C Redpath 78); F Russell, A Price (B White 62); P Schoeman (R Sutherland 44-62), S McInally (G Turner 44), W Nel (Z Fagerson 44), J Gray (R Darge 62), G Gilchrist, S Skinner, H Watson, M Fagerson (M Bradbury 31).
Referee: Nic Berry
Wales: Try: Francis; Pens: Biggar 4; DG: Biggar.
Scotland: Tries: Graham; Pen: Russell 4.
Scoring sequence (Wales first): 3-0; 6-0; 6-5; 6-8; 6-11; 9-11; 9-14; 14-14 (h-t) 14-17; 17-17; 20-17.
Yellow cards –
Scotland: Russell (67 mins)