Scotland 18 Wales 28: Talking points as Red Dragons keep title hopes alive
Scotland 18 Wales 28: James Thompson looks at the talking points after the Red Dragons won at Murrayfield on Saturday
Warburton returns to form
Wales have struggled to recapture the dazzling form of last year and their plight was typified by then captain Sam Warburton, who suffered from an alarming loss of form. While he remains the best natural No7 in the Northern Hemisphere, his form has been erratic as he has been affected by various niggling injuries and perhaps the burden of captaincy took its toll on him. However, after losing his place he returned to the starting line-up and delivered an outstanding performance as he took the man-of-the-match award. Referee Craig Joubert was maligned by the Scottish crowd for various breakdown decisions in Wales’ favour but Warburton’s instinct and strength meant he turned the ball over consistently. He won a number of penalty decisions for Wales which allowed full back Leigh Halfpenny to keep the scoreboard ticking over as they closed the game out. With recently recalled ex-skipper Ryan Jones taking over the captain duties, Warburton can just concentrate on his own game and deliver the quality performances that he became renowned for in 2011 and early 2012.
Halfpenny v Hogg
Both Leigh Halfpenny and Scott Hogg have enjoyed fine Six Nations campaigns as their side’s respective full-backs. While Halfpenny has been operating at a world-class level for at least two years, Hogg is very much the new kid on the block. With both harbouring genuine hopes of making the Lions tour this summer, much was expected of the face-off between the two men at Murrayfield. Aside from a few contests for a high ball there was rarely any direct contact between the two but both would have been pleased with their contribution. Halfpenny, who takes responsibility for place kicks, missed three kicks in the first half that, although difficult, he would have been disappointed to miss. However, he did end up with 23 points from the boot as he kept the scoreboard ticking over in the second half and further underlined his credentials as the first choice full back this summer with a solid defensive display. Hogg also endured some shaky moments as his handling let him down on occasion but with his forwards conceding an alarming amount of penalties he was never really given an opportunity to attack from deep and influence the game. Hogg remains the pretender to the throne but his displays so far in this tournament suggest that Scotland have a fantastic replacement for the retired Chris Paterson.
Are Scotland their own worst enemy?
The conditions at Murrayfield probably suited Scotland more than Wales but the Scots completely failed to adjust on the day. A spirited defensive display against Ireland last time out enabled them to sneak an unlikely win, despite enjoying only 29% of the possession on the day. Temporary head coach Scott Johnson admitted that they couldn’t rely on a similar display and urged his players to unleash a backline that has the threats of Hogg, Tim Visser and Sean Maitland. However, any game plan that he was hoping to implement was undone by the ill-discipline of his side. This was typified at the end of the first half, Scotland has just gone 12-10 up with around a minute to go, only to for veteran lock Jim Hamilton to go off-side in a ruck just in front of his own posts. It was a costly mistake as Halfpenny easily slotted over the kick and gave Wales the momentum going in to the second half. Johnson would have been understandably furious at his side as a lead at half-time would have changed the entire nature of the second half but instead, some lazy work at the breakdown allowed a rejuvenated Warburton to wreak havoc and concede further kickable penalties. The match made history as there were 12 penalty kicks in an international for the first time ever, a stat Scotland contributed heavily to. They must stop conceding such needless penalties if they are to progress into a top level test side.
With the Lions tour looming both sets of players would have been looking to impress the head coach Warren Gatland who was in attendance at Murrayfield. Both Warburton and Halfpenny underlined their credentials in the Welsh shirt but it was two previous Lions tourists that made the biggest impact. While Warburton took the man-of-the-match award, he was ably assisted by both Ryan Jones and Alun Wyn-Jones. The latter has missed most of the Six Nations with injury, but his presence in the second row contributed to a strong Welsh scrum and their line-out was strong when hooker Richard Hibbard managed to throw straight. Hibbard, despite scoring, endured a poor game and he must get the basics of his position right if he hopes to be on the plane this summer. For Scotland, lock Richie Gray went off in the first half with a hamstring injury, it’s not yet known how long he will be out for but both Scotland and Lions fans will be hoping it is nothing too serious. Back row Johnnie Beattie continued his good form and with no No.8 cementing a Lions place just yet, he still retains a chance at touring Australia. Similarly scrum-half Greg Laidlaw offers something different to his competitors with his kicking ability but he has must begin to make yards with the ball in hand to be challenging the likes of England duo Danny Care and Ben Youngs.