Six Nations 2015: Five talking points as Wales hold on to defeat Scotland
Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams shine as Wales get back to winning ways in a thrilling 26-23 encounter in Edinburgh
Scotland so close, but not good enough
How many times will cliches such as ‘Scotland the Brave’ be rolled out? Was it really a brave performance or is there a gust of patronising sympathy in the air? At times Vern Cotter’s side more than held their own against Wales, but at other times were outthought and outclassed. Stuart Hogg was a shining light with his running threat and took his gift of a try well as he rounded Richard Hibbard and cruised up to the line. Top tackle merchant Jonny Gray was another who could hold his head up high as the 20-year-old Glasgow Warriors outperformed Wales’ chopper Dan Lydiate in attack and defence, while London Irish openside flanker Blair Cowan continued to justify his inclusion by causing plenty of problems at the breakdown and winning turnover ball. Still, Scotland’s indiscipline problems continued. Finn Russell was a handful as he attacked the gainline with ball in hand, but was yellow carded in the first half for taking out Dan Biggar in the air by pulling out of the contest and turning his back into his opposite number’s legs – he can expect to be cited for that. That allowed Wales to add 10 points during his absence, while Scotland could only add three during Jonathan Davies’s 10 minutes on the sidelines. Scotland conceded 13 penalties in the 80 minutes, the majority of which came in the first half, allowing Leigh Halfpenny to get the scoreboard ticking. Wales would concede 11 of their 17 penalties in the second half and were lucky not to lose a player to the sin bin. Other teams would have made the most of those opportunities; Scotland lacked the edge to do that. Maybe next year, with more experience and a better cohesiveness, the Dark Blues can turn these near misses into victories. So far this year, they have impressed, but have not put together a strong enough package to justify a win. At least they have Italy at home at the end of the month.
Wales pack bounces back
It was a night to forget in Cardiff against England for the Welsh forwards with only Taulupe Faletau walking away with any credit, but they went some way towards redemption with a resolute display against Scotland in Edinburgh. Loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins was rarely troubled by Geoff Cross at scrum-time, while Aaron Jarvis held his own at tighthead against Alasdair Dickinson, who has been one of the Guinness PRO12’s stand-out looseheads with Edinburgh Rugby. Perfect on their feed at the scrum, Wales also stole the ball against the head. The lineout wasn’t flawless, with a couple of throws going awry, but was reasonably solid with Alun Wyn Jones ending the day as the top man for throws won with five. Jones also walked away with the man of the match award and was instrumental in leading the defence as Scotland threw everything at Wales, putting in nine solid tackles, clearing out rucks with gusto, and providing a useful outlet going forward. After struggling to repel Scotland’s driving maul, Wales held firm on the tryline numerous times at the end of the first and second half, only at the death was their defence breached from close quarters. The lineout definitely needs work with France and Ireland to come, and Jake Ball needs to cut out his needless penalties, but the most pleasing aspect has to be that Wales can still bounce back from mediocrity. The big test it to avoid having to do so in the first place.
New Scots still lack composure
After their stunning autumn campaign, there were high hopes for Scotland in this year’s Six Nations, but they have failed to deliver enough in their opening two matches. The promising signs are certainly there. They caused both France and Wales plenty of problems. Defensively, they are strong and resilient; a hardened edge to their play as a result of some southern hemisphere influence. With captain Greig Laidlaw and former captain Ross Ford off the field in the second half, there was a lack of leadership and clarity of thinking, despite a number of experienced players in Sean Lamont, the Alasdairs – Dickinson and Strokosch – and Jim Hamilton still involved. Much has been made about the desire in the New Scotland era, but with the youthful exuberance of a number of players barely into their 20s comes with a price. Inexperience, indecision, inaccuracy, impatience. All four of these were evident as Scotland threw away a glorious chance of defeating Wales for the first time since 2007. For those reasons, they didn’t deserve to win. While there is plenty of heart and desire to succeed in Vern Cotter’s squad – that cannot be doubted – there is plenty more they need to work on if they are to really challenge for more than a third- of fourth-place finish in the championship.
Wrong to blame referee for Scotland mistakes
Former Bay of Plenty, Chiefs and Saracens outside-half Glen Jackson may not have won too many fans in Scotland after their defeat in his first outing as a Six Nations referee. Having already angered the fervent Murrayfield crowd for, among other things, not awarding a try to Mark Bennett for a perceived forward pass that seemingly required no assistance from video replays. Perhaps inevitably, the Kiwi came under further fire for calling time on the game after Jon Welsh’s last-minute try was converted by Finn Russell. Four seconds left on the clock was the consensus as Russell’s kick sailed between the posts but, as always happens with a try that doesn’t require TMO input, time continues and Scotland weren’t back in their own half ready to receive a kick-off from Wales. The fault there can be placed at the door of experienced lock Jim Hamilton who, after failing to ground the ball, proceeded to scrap with the Welsh forwards, despite Jackson awarding the try when his Hamilton’s Scotland team-mate Jon Welsh did. That was the first minor hold-up to the conversion effort. There is a fair argument to be made that Russell took too long for a relatively simple kick that close to the end. Accenture, the tournament’s official technology partner and match data suppliers, timed Welsh’s try at 79:17 with the conversion struck at 79:54. What were the chances that Russell would be able to return to his 10-metre line and the entire Welsh team up from behind the posts and ready to kick-off in the time remaining? In his defence, Jackson questioned whether there was time left for a restart rather than just blow the whistle. He may not have had a flawless afternoon, but it wasn’t the referee’s timekeeping that was at fault for that talking point and faux controversy at the end of the game. The call came from Simon McDowell, the Television Match Official. The clock was red when the question was asked and there is nothing in the laws to demand that a restart must be taken from a converted try if the clock is red – the ball was dead after the conversion. As has been lamented by many Scotland fans, had they taken three points from one of a number of penalties in the final quarter rather than trying to run it in with their forwards, they may have been celebrating at least a second draw against Wales in the Six Nations era, rather than consoling themselves over an 11th defeat and what could have been a famous win.
The continued demise of Alex Cuthbert
Undoubtedly an athlete with impressive attributes, but for too long now he has been out of sorts and barely helps the Wales cause. He looked for work more than he has in recent outings for Wales, but it was he who was isolated after 13 phases of play in the first half which resulted in Stuart Hogg’s breakaway try from turnover ball. It wasn’t the only time, but without the same final result. With fellow wingman George North rested, Cuthbert was comfortably outplayed by Scarlets full-back/wing Liam Williams, who topped the metres made and bally carrying charts for Wales, had a hand in Rhys Webb’s try and went over himself only for it to be given then chalked off following a TMO review. Williams is the in-form Welsh winger for his club and rarely looks out of sorts when he gets a chance for Wales. His error at the death against South Africa in the summer, which led to a penalty try to rob Wales a victory, is a blip that has been forgiven and repaid. With Leigh Halfpenny enjoying a return to form and looking imperious at full-back, the writing is on the wall for Cuthbert if North returns for the next match in Paris at the end of February. Having turned down a dual contract, Cuthbert’s club future is up in the air and there is a strong belief that the Cardiff Blues man needs to sort out where he will be playing his rugby for the next couple of years, go away and rediscover his form to force his way into back into the Wales set-up and the hearts of an unforgiving Welsh support. Head coach Warren Gatland is as ruthless as he is stubborn and it must surely be nearing the time when the former comes into play. It takes time, but Adam Jones is just the latest in a number of Welsh stalwarts to be jettisoned. If Wales are to have any hope of winning their remaining three matches in this year’s campaign, they need further performances like that produced by Williams against Scotland. Cuthbert doesn’t seem capable of delivering on that anytime soon.