By Jack Vavasour
Wales welcomed Scotland to the Principality Stadium today which would prove to be a hard fought game for both sides. With neither Townsend’s nor Gatland’s men at their best and will be looking to improve before the World Cup in Japan next year rolls around.
The pre-cursor to today’s game was last night when Scotland took on Wales in two Pro 14 games as Scarlets took on Glasgow and Ospreys challenged Edinburgh. The result was two Scottish victories, Glasgow’s away from home. Today, Wales set out to avenge these results with a victory over Scotland at home, they succeeded.
Many have discredited this fixture as less competitive due to it taking place outside the Six Nations and with some Scotland and Wales players unavailable due to their clubs refusing to release them to a fixture taking place outside the World Rugby international window. However, with Adam Hastings taking Finn Russell’s place, a player who is normally the back bone of the Scottish backline and attack, the Scotland team seemed in safe hands. Hastings is inexperienced at only 22 years of age and only 3 caps under his belt prior to this contest, however, two weekends ago he tore apart a Cardiff Blues side at the Cardiff Arms Park, now he looks to conquer the Arms Park’s neighbour and make Cardiff his own.
Wales faced similar problems at fly-half, with Dan Biggar similarly unreleased by his club side, furthermore, Rhys Patchell is still recovering from a head injury. In place of Wales’ first choices, Gareth Anscombe wears the number 10 jersey, a star himself a week prior to Hastings, as Cardiff returned to European rugby’s elite with a convincing win over Lyon. Anscombe has been playing at Full-Back for Cardiff, with Jarrod Evans taking up the 10 shirt, today Evans is on the bench. Luke Morgan also debuted on the wing for Wales, an experience he described as surreal.
The teams have only met once outside of Championship matches before today, in 2003 and Wales won 23-9. This essentially begins World Cup preparations for both sides as the World Cup in Japan is less than a year away and coaches will want to begin refining their squads to decide who will be on the plane and who won’t receive a ticket.
Before kick-off, the whole stadium were off their feet in support of Doddie Weir and his battle against Motor Neurone Disease, he came out of the tunnel to present the ‘Doddie Weir Trophy’ which is shall be competed for by Scotland and Wales.
The game started off slowly with both teams seemingly only wanting to put boot to ball as it travelled from one end of the field to the next. Eventually Leigh Halfpenny broke the deadlock with a well taken penalty 4 minutes into the game.
Scotland proceeded to slow down Wales as they stopped maul after maul to halt Wales’ game plan. Both teams looked dangerous at moments throughout the first half but neither gained a strong foothold throughout the half. It was a half of solid defending from both sides and the brutality of the defence and tackles proved to doubters just how competitive this fixture was. Kicking continued, as it also appeared to be the basis of attack and creativity for both sides’ playmakers.
The home supporters thought their side had gone over as Anscombe kicked for the corner and North successfully dotted down. Under review, however, it was revealed that North’s foot was, in fact, in touch. Again, this was due to good Scottish defensive pressure. Wales went back for the penalty advantage and Halfpenny put Wales further ahead. Scotland went further down after Ross Moriarty ran a destructive line to put Scotland on the back foot, forcing the penalty. Halfpenny was again in fine form, increasing the Welsh lead to 9.
After some sloppy hands from Nicky Smith, Scotland then dominated the scrum and won a penalty which Adam Hastings took calmly to claim his first points in a Scotland shirt. Shortly after, Anscombe pulled back a pass intelligently to George North. North had his work cut out but broke two tackles to power over the line for the first try of the match. Halfpenny, uncharacteristically, missed the conversion, leaving the scores at 14-3.
Scotland responded well, applying pressure immediately. They won a penalty on Wales’ 22 metre line and kicked for the corner. Scotland went to the maul again off the line out and this time were successful with Captain, Stuart McInally, spearheading a splinter from the maul and dotting down to put Scotland back in the game. Hastings converted, taking the score to 14-10 to Wales. Halfpenny, just before half-time, was lucky to escape punishment as Tommy Seymour was taken in the air. He escaped due to the lack of malice in the take out but also due to the fact that Seymour came out of the hit undamaged. This has been an area of contention in recent years, however, on the day the referee made the right call.
Throughout the game, before he was taken off, Scotland looked desperate to release Huw Jones into the wider channels. Wales reduced the threat of Jones well with Scotland eventually removing him from the field, and finding more success through Alex Dunbar. Whether Jones was less effective due to the man at fly-half or whether he was just having an off day is unclear, however, it was apparent that Scotland were not looking as dangerous as they have done in the past. This can also be attributed to some good Welsh defence, a characteristic that both sides shared.
Wales, eventually, found a break in the Scottish defence as Hadleigh Parkes pulled a pass back to Anscombe who took the ball to Jones then passed at the last minute to send Jonathon Davies through for a simple try, highlighting the pace and strength of the outside centre. Halfpenny converted to make the score 21-10 in Wales’ favour.
Following this, Scotland hit back hard and looked more determined than any previous period in the game. The travelling side reminded us why they have become known as such an attacking force in recent years. Scotland refused to go to the posts for the rest of the game, a decision that proved costly. They continued to pile on pressure throughout the rest of the game, dominating the final half-hour.
Scotland would cross the whitewash twice, following an Elliot Dee yellow card, both would go on to be disallowed. Jonny Gray forced his way over from close quarters, this was ruled out due to double movement. Later, the Horne brothers combined for George to chip the Welsh defence on the 5 metre line for Peter to apparently catch and dot down. However, the ball had slipped through his clutches and there was no pressure applied. Scotland continued but couldn’t find that all important break. Wales’ defence held strong and eventually turned the ball over for Davies to calmly kick it into touch to finish the match.
Neither Wales nor Scotland looked anywhere near their best today and both coaches will be looking to improve for their matches against Southern Hemisphere opposition. Both sides focused upon kicking and most of the kicks did not prove threatening and were often dealt with and returned with ease.
Both sides defended well with quick line speed and lots of pressure, this showed as there were many penalties conceded at the breakdown by the side who were attacking as the defence were rarely on the back foot.
Both team’s fly-halves faced mixed days, with Anscombe providing some crucial passes yet also putting in some dreadful kicks which were lucky not to have been more costly. Hastings was ultimately disappointing with an uneventful display. He lacked time and space to be fully effective and as his experience at this level grows, so will his game. Scotland will look forward to having Finn Russell at the helm once again next week to boss the game.
Scotland also looked far more dangerous when George Horne was at scrum half. He instilled a fast yet controlled game and almost got Scotland over the line on a couple of occasions with his quick thinking.
However, Tipuric was the star on the day, with a perfect performance at openside flanker, in a game that was often competed at the breakdown. Furthermore, he latched onto Scottish ball when they would let the ball loose and he really showed his worth to Gatland today.
Ultimately, Wales were the better team, yet both have some way to go if they want to compete at next year’s World Cup in Japan.