Thursday 20 September 2018

Expansive Wales tear up the script

Wales 34 Scotland 7

Steff Evans scores a fourth try for Wales at full stretch to seal a bonus-point victory over Scotland in their Six Nations opener at Cardiff yesterday. Photo: Getty Images
Steff Evans scores a fourth try for Wales at full stretch to seal a bonus-point victory over Scotland in their Six Nations opener at Cardiff yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Rees

Scotland flew high in November but took a fall here. Their pre-tournament optimism was shredded by a team that beat them at their own game. On the 10th anniversary weekend of Warren Gatland's first match as Wales's head coach, the New Zealander showed again he has few peers by shrugging off the loss of 10 players to mastermind a victory even more emphatic than the score suggests.

"Credit to Scotland. The way they've been playing - that was a performance borne out of respect for them," said Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones.

Leigh Halfpenny of Wales supported by Josh Adams dives over to score his second try. Photo: Getty Images
Leigh Halfpenny of Wales supported by Josh Adams dives over to score his second try. Photo: Getty Images

"A lot has been said about injuries on both sides but as two 15s we had to deal with the people on the park. We're very pleased to start like that but there's a long campaign ahead."

Scotland talked during the week about employing an attacking strategy based on chaos, but that noun applied to their defence in the opening 15 minutes when Wales, as they had done here against South Africa in their previous game, established an early 14-point lead with two tries.

The first came after six minutes. Scotland applied the early pressure and came close to scoring when Johnny Gray handed off Gareth Davies and got to five metres of the Wales line when he was hauled down by Rhys Patchell and Alun Wyn Jones. Wales were prepared to keep the ball in play and invite the counter-attack, trusting their blanket defence marshalled by Scott Williams that forced the Scots to take lateral routes.

There was a clarity about Wales based on analysis of their opponents, as there had been against the Springboks, but their opening try was all about reaction. Scotland had a ruck on the Wales 10-metre line, but what looked a routine recycling of the ball was complicated by the presence of the out-half Finn Russell, who had just made a break, on the ground.

Scotland player Ben Toolis attempts to block the box kick of Gareth Davies. Photo: Getty Images
Scotland player Ben Toolis attempts to block the box kick of Gareth Davies. Photo: Getty Images

As the scrum-half Ali Price looked to pass, the first receiver was the prop Jon Welsh who was lying flat and further away than Russell would have been.

Price took a few steps to close the distance, alerting his opposite number Davies who positioned himself inside Welsh to intercept and run 60 metres to outpace Chris Harris and score.

It was an opportunist try out of Scotland's manual but Wales's second showed how their handling game has developed. After Price was penalised for a crooked feed into a scrum, 10 metres from his own line, Patchell, who attacked the gainline all afternoon, broke the defensive line and when the ball was moved right, the second-row Cory Hill could have been expected to stick his head down and charge.

Instead he passed directly behind him to Williams who, detecting that Scotland were narrow in defence, passed long to Leigh Halfpenny for the full-back to score his first international try since 2013.

Scotland had 60 per cent of the territory in the opening half but failed to score any points. On the few occasions they threatened the Wales line, they struggled to deal with Josh Navidi's strength over the ball and they were fortunate not to go into the interval more than 14-0 down.

Wales had 10 Scarlets in their line-up, giving them a familiarity to offset a long injury list, and their handling resembled the Barbarians at times.

In between their two tries, Aaron Shingler broke from his own line for Rob Evans and Hill to take the move towards Scotland's 22 where Alun Wyn Jones took it on. As the Wales captain neared the posts, he was tackled, passing to Steff Evans on his inside as he fell to ground. The pass was behind the eager wing and was spilled but it was an example of how the image before the match of a contrast in styles was wrong.

For all Scotland's intent, there was a predictability to their play. Russell probed and schemed, once breaking free of his shacklers to set up Price who was immediately floored by Josh Adams, but he made too many mistakes against opponents who had set themselves up to attack off turnover ball. If Scotland's scrum largely held up, Wales applied pressure in the lineout and forced their opponents to hurry moves. With Williams an immovable object, even the most intricate plays were handled without alarm.

Wales were missing seven players who toured New Zealand with the Lions last summer, but somehow they were not weakened by their loss. Patchell, starting his first Test in his favoured position of out-half five years after he was first capped, ran the game like a veteran, and his long clearance kicks gave Wales the chance to align their defence and nullify the threat of Stuart Hogg.

It said everything about Wales's assurance that there was no uplift from Scotland at the start of the second half. Their captain John Barclay, who plays for the Scarlets, conceded two penalties at the breakdown which were kicked by Halfpenny to extend the home side's lead to 20 points. It showed the desperation that mingled with frustration for a side that was enduring their familiar homesickness in the Six Nations.

If a lack of groundbreaking ball-carriers had forced them to play behind the gainline in the opening period, they ran out of possession after the break. When Wales reached the point where the match was virtually won, they became more direct and after driving a lineout to within centimetres of the Scotland line, they moved the ball to the right where Halfpenny scored his second try.

Wales saved their best until last, the rampant Shingler and Navidi indulging in an off-loading session for Steff Evans to score in the left-hand corner before Peter Horne spared Scotland's whitewashing 90 seconds from time. Wales will travel to Twickenham armed with more than hope, while the Scots, at home to France, will at least not be on the road to sink again.

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