In a packed out Millenium Stadium with the roof shut, this match-up threatened the sort of noisy drama last seen here in 2010. And in the end, there was something horribly familiar about it, as a fifteen minute period of madness left Scotland down in defence and the game put clinically out of reach by the Welsh.
Up until then though it had been anything but clinical. During a breathless opening 15 minutes, Wales showed clear attacking intent and Scotland looked like they were willing – if possibly less able – to play the same game.
Laidlaw on his first start had a chance to settle nerves with an early penalty kick but it was pushing the edge of his range and he skewed it. Otherwise though he looked settled and brought his backs into the game nicely.
Although Gray was dominating the lineout, Scotland were under a lot of pressure in the loose. They held onto the ball well but were pushed back by incredibly aggressive – often to the point of offside – defence from the Welsh every time they tried to go forward, and they were very alert to any telegraphed Scottish attempts to move the ball wide.
The breakdown was a dogfight, with the Scottish back row doing their best to make the rucks a mess with the fewest men possible and the Welsh slowing up ball wherever they could.
Big wings Cuthbert and North looked to get into the game as much as possible but North’s initial attempt to stamp his mark on the game led to Jim Hamilton stamping his mark on George North with a huge hit that had the Welshman reeling.
An early injury to Max Evans meant Stuart Hogg looking at a baptism of dragonfire with only 15 minutes of the game elapsed, but he was given nothing to do for the next 15 minutes. By the time he started to see ball, he knew no fear and looked right at home. Despite previous misgivings, it would be hard to argue against him starting when Scotland take the field against France.
After a rare occasion when Poite punished the Welsh for their infringing and Laidlaw got Scotland on the board, Halfpenny struck back on the half hour and it was hard to believe it was only 3-3 with half an hour gone
Nick De Luca and Rory Lamont grew in confidence with the ball in hand and Scotland put together 20 phases to attack the Welsh line only for Chunk to knock on a foot from the line, and the scoreline remained at half time.
The two players named above were to leave their mark on the game but sadly not in the way they had initially suggested.
Just after half time a silly error on the restart allowed Wales early attacking ball. The Welsh big wing policy finally paid off as the ball went wide and Cuthbert barged over Laidlaw who was marking him to score the try, Halfpenny converting.
The silliness continued with Nick De Luca tackling rumbustious centre Davies off the ball during a kick chase, putting Scotland down to 14 men. It was unnecessary and rash, but the remaining Scots battled manfully and Laidlaw grabbed a penalty, while Blair came on to try make the game so fast Wales wouldn’t notice they had a man advantage.
Wales did have the numbers though, and the next time they were in the Scottish 22 they went wide Hogg and Jones could do nothing to prevent the try. There was nothing anyone could do to prevent Rory Lamont from giving another yellow card away with a despairing tackle from an offside position, save Rory Lamont. Again rash, again the Scots battled manfully. And again Wales scored.
Scotland survived the minute or so that they were down to 13 men, but the numbers again made it easy for Halfpenny to grab his second try. Call it the Halfpenny half: 19 points in 14 minutes. It was 27-6.
Scotland hadn’t even really done anything in the half and the game was practically over. Andy Robinson said after the game, “When you are under pressure, you have to be prepared to absorb that pressure.” Those Scots left on the pitch had tried hard to do so, but the Welsh backs are too well drilled, too talented to let you off the hook that easily; they know what can happen when you have a player carded.
Of course, this is the point where Scotland usually start to play and this Scotland team were no disappointment in that regard. Sean Lamont, seemingly fuelled by anger made some more inroads and a great break went through the hands to De Luca who fired off a quick but inaccurate pass.
Hogg collected it deftly considering the pass was at Flymo height and scored the try but Poite disallowed it for a knock on. As he said to Kellock, “it’s my call”. It was, and it was the wrong one.
Spurred on by the injustice, Hogg went looking for work behind the tireless pack and charged Scotland back to the line. This time Laidlaw sneaked the ball on to the line, Scotland crossing the whitewash for the first time since the 4 tries in the World Cup against Romania.
With Lamont restored, Hogg made a great run and De Luca tried to make amends for his mistake with some good half breaks and the Scots were looking good with ball in hand rather than the hot-potato of last week, but the Welsh defence though tired was up to it.
Blair and Lamont tried to up the pace even further on tap and go penalties but were thwarted by Poite’s nitpicking, when he was quite happy to let the Welsh not go back the required 10 and continue to slow ball in the rucks. Sean slammed the ball into the turf to the jeers of the home fans, but you understood his extreme frustration. Robinson said afterwards “The guys have played very well and they are hurting. And rightly so.”
Chasing the game had been a requirement since just before the first sin bin; but it shouldn’t have been that way.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Rhys Priestland, Mike Phillips; Gethin Jenkins, Huw Bennett, Adam Jones, Ryan Jones, Ian Evans, Dan Lydiate, Aaron Shingler, Toby Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Paul James, Lou Reed, Andy Powell, Lloyd Williams, James Hook, Scott Williams.
Scotland: Rory Lamont, Lee Jones, Nick De Luca, Sean Lamont, Max Evans, Greig Laidlaw, Chris Cusiter; Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford, Geoff Cross, Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton, Alasdair Strokosch, Ross Rennie, David Denton.
Replacements: Scott Lawson, Ed Kalman, Alastair Kellock, John Barclay, Mike Blair, Duncan Weir, Stuart Hogg.
Ref: Romaine Poite (France)
Touch judges: Peter Fitzgibbon, Simon McDowelll (Ireland)
TMO: Giulio de Santis (Italy)