“Wales wreck sorry Scotland” – a Post Match Review

It is sometimes best to let the dust settle. To step back from the hysteria generated in the immediate aftermath of a match. To reconsider and review in the cold light of day.

Having done so, and allowed time for ample reflection, the first observation must be that Wales were very good, but not world beaters and that Scotland were poor but are not as poor as the final scoreline might suggest.

The second is that international rugby can often swing on pivotal moments, which can change the momentum of a whole match. One team can take the lead and the other are immediately under pressure and have to suddenly start playing ‘catch up’ rugby. The whole approach and mindset change, all the best made and pre-conceived plans can often disappear in an instant. Minds become scrambled. It often needs experience, strength of mind and calmness to recover from adversity, all characteristics which were palpably lacking from the Scotland team on Saturday.

The Scottish scrum half, Ali Price, was the chief culprit. Sadly for him,  his initial errors, a loopy pass that was intercepted for the opening try and a crooked feed into the scrum under his own posts which ultimately led to the second Welsh try, arguably cost his side the match.

From that point Wales were in control and any nerves from Warren Gatland’s young guns quickly dissipated and their confidence visibly grew as they took hold of the match.

Yet it could have been so different. The opening exchanges were frenetic and both sides gave as good as they got, both playing with freedom and width, yet lacking in any real structure. As Jonny Gray charged towards the try line after only a few minutes, it seemed as though Scotland were going to continue their recent impressive try scoring form from the autumn, which culminated in their significant victory over the Australians. However, let it not be forgotten that was a tired Australian team, playing their final international match of a long and gruelling season and, furthermore, reduced to 14 men just before the half time interval when they were still leading.

It could be argued that the stars were in line for the rampant Scots on that occasion and that the Australian minds may have been elsewhere, especially after the sending off of one of their most influential players. It certainly felt as though that result may have given the Scots, and indeed much of the British media, a slightly deluded opinion of the Scottish place in the international rugby hierachy.

The Welsh were certainly not going to give the Scots the freedom to play in the wide open spaces that   they were afforded by the Australians on that famous afternoon in Edinburgh. Oh no, Gatland and his trusty lieutenants, Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards,  had devised a pressing defensive structure, aimed to keep the Scots pinned back, to which they had no answer. The Scots were firmly put back in their places and all the joy and delight from their autumn successes seemed as if from a different age. England be warned, do not under estimate the Welsh.

It is often said that teams reflect their managers. For the Welsh, Gatland, Edwards and Howley offer a skilled and determined, yet humble triumvirate. There is no razzmatazz, glitz or glamour. No arrogance. It is all about structures, hard work and determination and their charges offered all those virtues in abundance. Three decent and honourable men with values which clearly rub off on their players.

Drawing the same comparisons, the Scottish heard coach, Gregor Townsend was always far more flaky and inconsistent, considered a genius one day, largely from an attacking perspective, yet error strewn and wimpish on others, sometimes considered not being fully up for the battle. Accusations of being a little selfish and arrogant on occasions could also perhaps be levelled at some of his more high profile players on Saturday.

Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg are arguably Scotland’s most dynamic and accomplished attacking players. Like many of their fellow Scottish players, they seem to take some delight in their designer bearded ‘action man’ images, as if in the ‘cool gang’, ready for action. They can believe their hype and often play as if given a god given right to go onto the park and strut their stuff. Yet international rugby is not like that. Players and teams have to earn the right to play, to do the hard yards before adding the gloss.  Their case was certainly not helped on Saturday by falling 14 points behind after only 10 minutes, which certainly does change the mindset.

Russell and Hogg are undoubtedly exceptional players in a largely improving Scottish outfit, but they must learn when to play the percentages, when to cut out the fancy flicks and daring kicks, and take fewer risks. They will most certainly learn from this and it would be no surprise if they demolished the inexperienced French team with some carefree attacking play on their own turf next week.

The Scots traditionally do not travel well. They have never won away from home in the opening match of a Six Nations tournament and, after that disastrous opening period, it was unlikely to change here. It might be a little harsh to judge all their players on this one match, especially after some of their successful recent results, but they are lacking in several departments.

They seem woefully short on the wing and in the centre, Huw Jones and arguably Sean Mailtand excepted. The also have problems at scrum half, where Ali Price had one of the poorest matches for a scrum half in recent history, and Greg Laidlaw is now well into the twilight of his career, despite now sporting the designer beard and looks. Up front, they were well beaten, their line out a mess where Stuart McInally at hooker was well out of his depth, and only Jonny Gray made any sort of significant contribution. Ryan Wilson must start next week at number 8.

Yet the Scots can be something of an enigma. In front of their bagpipe-playimg, tartan-kilt wearing supporters they invariably lift their game to exalted levels and it would be wrong to completely write them off after this one disappointing performance, albeit the portents do not look good.

In the same way, it would be wrong to suddenly label the Welsh as the tournament favourites. Granted they put in a polished, controlled and mature performance, but after the gifts handed to them by the Scots so early on, their task was made so much easier. It is unlikely that England will be so generous next week at Twickenham.

Having said that, this Welsh team have some exceptional players and leaders, who are both humble and gracious, yet fiercely competitive, with a huge team and work ethic. This is no better encapsulated than their leader, the hugely impressive Alan Wyn Jones, all scraggy beard and wide eyes, the thought of visiting a trendy barber an alien concept when compared to some of his Scottish adversaries. Winning rugby matches is all about desire and will to win, and certainly not in the fashion parlours and boutiques.

For all Welshmen and women, as well as most neutral observers, it was wonderful to witness the return to form of Leigh Halfpenny, who was a colossus in everything he did. He has always been a wonderful footballer and truly a world class player and he deserved the plaudits afforded to him for his exceptional display. His two tries were not particularly difficult for a player of his natural class but he took them with aplomb and his goalkicking was immaculate. It is only a shame that he has lost his searing pace which has certainly held him back in recent years but his rugby brain remains as sharp as ever.

He was well complemented by a composed display at fly half by Ryan Patchell, making his Six Nations bow and he played well within himself, not trying anything too elaborate, and he slotted into the team plays and structures as if a seasoned international. His controlled performance was arguably a lesson for his opposite number, Finn Russell, who often appeared rushed, playing to his own personal agenda and glory, rather than that of the team, seemingly obsessed by the ‘killer’ kick at times, rather than playing through the phases to wear down the Welsh defence. However, Patchell will be targeted by the eager English back row, so it will be interesting to witness how he bears up at Twickenham next week. On the evidence of his form for the prolific Scarlets team this year, there is no reason to suggest that he will not take it all in his stride, but international rugby is certainly a step up and it will be huge challenge for the young man.

He will be hugely comforted at the thought of having his club colleague Gareth Davies alongside him. Davies is a real live wire and a huge talent, with pace and a quick service. He already has the experience of scoring a winning try at Twickenham so he will not be phased, indeed he seems to positively relish the big occasion and he certainly made a big difference against Scotland.

The only concern for the Welsh in the half back positions will be their back up. Aled Davies and Gareth Anscombe are not of international quality as yet and do present something of a risk.

On the left wing, Steff Evans had a wonderful match and looks a real find, with exuberance and pace and he produced a sublime leaping finish for his try.  If Liam Williams or George North are fit enough to return next week then Wales will pose a real threat out wide.

Amongst the forwards, Aaron Shingler produced a stand out performance, prominent all over the pitch and exceptional in the line out too. He was complemented by the combative Josh Navidi and the returning Ross Moriarty in the back row, as well as the dynamic Cory Hill in the engine room alongside his skipper. With Justin Tupiric joining them from the bench, they make up a more than useful breakaway group and England will need to be wary,

So what of Twickenham this coming Saturday. England will surely learn from the way that the Scots played and punch much closer to the breakdown, tying the Welsh back row in, rather than throwing the ball laterally across the pitch at any opportunity, which clearly played into Welsh hands.

Furthermore they will have noticed the propensity of the Welsh to keep the ball in play with their clearing defensive kicks, so they will have to look to attack from deep and strategise accordingly.

England are hugely experienced and have pace and power across their team. They rarely lose at Twickenham, indeed they rarely lose at all, have won all 23 matches bar one since Eddie Jones took over and they will quite rightly be strong favourites.  Such is the quality of their ‘finishers’ from the bench too and their ability to change the game, that Wales will do well to come close, and England should arguably win by 20 points.

That said, new replacement scrum half Richard Wigglesworth is likely to slow the game down when he comes on, rather than quicken it up, which seems alien to current English ideals so Wales may be given some respite. Indeed there could be a case for starting him and bringing Danny Care on when the game opens up.

Yet it would be wrong to completely dismiss the Welsh chances. They will be hugely buoyed by their comprehensive victory over Scotland and will arrive at Twickenham with no fear. With ten Scarlets in their starting XV they do very much resemble a club team with a strong spirit and sense of togetherness, which Gatland and his management team will seek to harness yet again.

It all makes for a fascinating encounter and is the very essence of the magic of the Six Nations. The rugby world awaits.

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