Monday 22 January 2018

Halfpenny edges kicking contest to keep Welsh title dreams alive

Scotland 18 Wales 28

Leigh Halfpenny scores a penalty against Scotland at Murrayfield yesterday
Leigh Halfpenny scores a penalty against Scotland at Murrayfield yesterday

Mike Averis

The Welsh have their dream of a championship play-off against England in Cardiff next Saturday after getting the best of a fragmented afternoon at Murrayfield which was dominated by the whistle of the South African referee Craig Joubert and the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Greig Laidlaw.

The Welsh have their dream of a championship play-off against England in Cardiff next Saturday after getting the best of a fragmented afternoon at Murrayfield which was dominated by the whistle of the South African referee Craig Joubert and the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Greig Laidlaw.

The Welsh full-back, who did his Lions hopes no harm at all with a solid performance on a bitterly cold and windy day, added 23 points to the 22 he scored against Scotland last day out, but the most remarkable statistic was that there were 19 kicks at goal – which seems to be a record in Tests – but only one yellow card and that was shown to the Wales prop Paul James with only two minutes left on the game clock.

Wales, defending their Six Nations title, have now won their last five games on the road – a championship first for them – and if the title is to be decided at Cardiff, where they have lost their last five Tests, they do have their former captain and back-row inspiration, Sam Warburton, back to something like his form during last season's Grand Slam and before that the World Cup.

Of the nine turnovers won by Wales, Warburton was responsible for four and won a crucial penalty when Scotland were within touching distance. "Sam's a wonderful player and wonderful on the ball," said Scott Johnson, once coach of Wales and now the Scotland interim coach. "And when you bring Tips [Justin Tipuric] on as well you have two world class scavengers. There is quality there. They're two good lads."

After losing the captaincy and then his place in the team, Warburton's form will restart the debate about the likely Lions back line in Australia this summer, possibly even the captaincy. Less certain is the role of Scotland lock Richie Gray, who lasted only 29 minutes before twisting his knee while attempting to tackle the Welsh try-scorer Richard Hibbard.

Gray left the field on a stretcher, his leg in a brace, and Johnson said: "He's in a pretty bad way. He's got a hamstring but he will play again this year [later amended to this season]. There will be a significant time away from the game."

Johnson now takes his side to Paris looking for three wins in a Six Nations season for the first time since 2006, but he refused to bad-mouth yesterday's referee for a defeat which brings Scotland down to earth after wins against Ireland and Italy.

However, the Australian does fancy Welsh chances against England on Saturday, providing the point differential is not too great.

"I like this Welsh side," said the man who spent five years in the Wales camp. "It's a nice balance and they can grind out a game. If they have to chase a lot of points I'm not sure they can do that. But if it comes down to the wire they will be hard to beat. It's a good finale to the tournament and I only wish we were part of it, but the fact is it will be a quality game that goes a long way towards deciding positions in the Lions team.

"There is a lot at stake here. They can't get ahead of themselves, but there is a toughness and resilience about this team." Johnson might also have said that Alun Wyn Jones, only just back after injury, did his Lions hopes no harm, while Adam Jones had a whole lot to do with the superiority of the Wales scrum.

"The inability to play off-platform is stopping us," said Johnson. "You score most of your tries off set pieces and we are not getting any. We're putting ourselves under pressure all the time, we're putting ourselves under the cosh.

"We can play a bit, but the most frustrating part is that we think we have a world-class front row. We have, we have a quality front row and locks and we scrummage square. We don't try any tricks. We have a good scrum and we're getting nothing from it and we haven't for three weeks."

But he refused to criticise the referee. Asked to clear up confusion about some of the penalties, Johnson conceded: "From where we were sitting we had the same issue, but I'm not here to discuss the referee. He's got a job to do and he seems a decent bloke."

However, the Scottish dream of three wins on the trot for the first time in the Six Nations looked to be unravelling almost from the kick-off. First the Welsh forwards drove Scotland back 20 metres and then won penalties at two scrums before the Scottish pack, so solid against Ireland, went backwards at speed and Halfpenny accepted the penalty.

The Welsh full-back also took the first points in his personal battle with Stuart Hogg, fielding the Scot's kick and chase, but within a minute Scotland were level and then eased ahead thanks to penalties from Laidlaw which had the benefit of the bitter wind behind them. Halfpenny did not and proved himself a mere mortal by missing three – one left, one right and one off the upright – before Wales got their act together for the first try.

First North cruised down the right, making 40 metres before being hauled down. Jamie Roberts was then launched from 10 metres, only to hit a blue wall before Hibbard the hooker flopped over for the try, with Halfpenny converting to cheers of relief from the travelling Welsh.

After that Joubert played his tune, as he had at Twickenham a week earlier, and the lead changed hands five times before half-time. The second spell started on a similar note, but four penalties for Halfpenny settled a game which only burst to life in the last 10 minutes when Scotland went 10 points adrift.

Observer

Scorers – Scotland: G Laidlaw 6 pens. Wales: L Halfpenny con, 7 pens; R Hibbard try.

Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland, S Lamont, M Scott, T Visser; D Weir (R Jackson 78), G Laidlaw; R Grant, R Ford, E Murray (G Cross 76); R Gray (A Kellock 29), J Hamilton; R Harley, K Brown, J Beattie (R Wilson 68).

Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts (L Williams 72), G North, D Biggar; M Phillips (S Williams 72), P James, R Hibbard (K Owens 60); A Jones, AW Jones, I Evans; R Jones (J Tipuric 48), S Warburton, T Faletau (R Bevington 81).

Referee: C Joubert (RSA)

Irish Independent

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