Time to test the foundations. Foundations that have, in the past 15 or so years, crumbled and warped under any true pressure. False dawns have come and gone without heralding a new era for Scottish Rugby and here in 2015 we see another new beginning. This is the first real test of the new order though. Vern Cotter’s first Six Nations at BT Murrayfield and it is the Welsh who have come to test our resolve.
Blue skies, sunshine and unseasonal warmth mean we could thankfully forgo most of the pantomime of the fireworks, lightshows and 14th century battle re-enactments in favour of genuine fan lead atmosphere generation. Both sets of supporters in jubilant mood despite coming off the back of respective losses, knowing todays result would define the 2015 Six Nations Championship for both nations. Stirring anthems reached a crescendo and Finn Russell punted the ball deep in the Welsh ranks.
The opening parries saw Wales call Scotland’s bluff with a series of crash ball off their duo of battering rams Roberts and Davies. Further territory was gained through some quick pick and rolls before Blair Cowan failed to roll away from a tackle and Halfpenny slotted the opening penalty to give Wales a 3-0 lead after 6 minutes.
The Welsh kept up their customary pressure and Scotland were toiling to cope with the pace and intensity of ‘Gatland Ball’ but a superb tackle by Dunbar in the midfield saw the Welsh lose shape. A lightning quick turnover just outside the 22 went through Scottish hands before releasing Hogg for what is now becoming his trademark 60 metre try. Laidlaw slotted the simple conversion and it was game on at 7-3 to Scotland.
A clever lineout move shortly after the restart which saw Ford, Laidlaw and Cowan combine up the blindside brought Scotland immediately back into the try zone but a knock on then a scrum penalty allowed Wales to clear their lines. Belief was now coursing through Scottish veins and Finn Russell released Dunbar who almost found Lamont on the far wing but ended up fingertips away from a sure score. Points did eventually come though, albeit a penalty following some handling on the deck by Jake Ball right in front of the posts. Laidlaw doesn’t miss those. 10-3 to Scotland with just over quarter of an hour gone.
Through their pint-sized wizard Leigh Halfpenny, Wales tried to settle back into their rock solid game plan and some enterprising play brought them to within 5 metres before a Scottish foul gave Halfpenny the 3 points to make it 10-6 on the twenty minute mark.
The relentless pace was no longer sustainable for either team and a ten minute period of attritional midfield scrapping began to favour the men in red. Some brinkmanship in the home 22 by the Scottish pack eventually paid off and Scotland were able to clear their lines after a wheeled scrum. Still the Welsh came with hard running from their forwards and big up-and-unders from their backline. Finn Russell accidentally took out Biggar in the air following one such punt and it was off to the naughty step for 10 minutes whilst Halfpenny booted the resultant penalty to bring Wales back to within a point at 10-9 on the half hour.
Suddenly the power game had real merit for Wales, and with Scotland minus a back, they shipped it wide to Williams who had to nous to turn it inside for his support runner Webb to touchdown. Halfpenny successfully converted to give Wales their first lead of the game at 16-10.
Jonathan Davies then celebrated this try by fouling Jonny Beattie in the air to earn himself a yellow card. With parity of numbers restored so too was the equilibrium of the game and a powerful drive up the right wing from the Scottish pack had them within sniffing distance of the Welsh line only for Alun Wyn Jones to collapse the maul.
Scotland opted for a line out over the points and Gray Snr plucked it out the air. Greig went blind of the next phase Wales were able to slow it down and eventually turn it over. A duff clearance meant Scotland came again before being held up agonisingly close. This time the whistle from the referee was to bring an end to a pulsating first half.
Half time: Scotland 10 Wales 16
The second half began with a penalty clearance and the reintroduction of Russell. Oddly subdued by a series of minor injuries Scotland began to turn the screw through the scrum and some mismanagement at a subsequent breakdown gave Scotland three points through a penalty from Laidlaw. 13-16 to Wales with five minutes gone in the second period.
The Welsh continued their tactic of garryowens and Hogg was mullered by Jamie Roberts under one bombardment resulting in a scrum for Wales on the 15m line. Davies returned from the sin bin and helped win a penalty for Halfpenny to successfully score off the inside of the post. 13-19 to Wales.
Jon Welsh came on for Geoff Cross, whose beard had obviously become too itchy, on the 50 minute mark in a pre-planned substitution. However, it failed to disrupt the Scottish scrum which was by now beginning to dominate. Using it as a platform Scotland looked to control possession and pressure in the midfield gave Greig another opportunity to take 3 points from a penalty kick. 16-19 on the 55 minute mark.
A serious looking bicep injury for Richie Gray ended his match, Jim ‘penalty’ Hamilton coming on to replace him. Wales stepped up the pressure and Scotland sought to take the sting out of it by substituting Beattie for Strokosch and Dunbar for Scott. A 5m lineout for Wales had them moving through the phases before switching back to the left wing for Williams to bound over. However, some typically ‘edgy’ work from Alun Wyn Jones was spotted by the TMO and the try was disallowed.
On the hour mark, Cowan entered sideways into a ruck and Leigh Halfpenny missed his first penalty of the game. Wales changed four and Scotland took Dickinson off for Gordon Reid. Territory and possession was now very much with the Welsh. Eager to shake off the myth that they can’t play beyond the 60 minute mark they continued their relentless crash ball formula. Eventually Jonathan Davies broke past a tired Jonny Gray to score under the posts. Halfpenny added the extras and we entered the last quarter of a hour with Wales 26-15 in the lead.
Another serious looking injury for Scotland, this time to Gordon Reid meant Dicko was back on in the front row. Some inventive attacking moves by firstly Hogg then Mark Bennett took Scotland to within 2 metres of the Welsh trenches with Russell at the heart of everything good for Scotland. Some pick and drives kept Scotland knocking at the door before the inevitable penalty. Laidlaw bravely opted for a tap and go and after a few phases and some effective mauling the referee gave Wales their last penalty rites. Still Scotland pressed but some hugely impressive defence by Wales eventually repelled the onslaught.
Time now for Sam Hidaglo-Clyne to make his BT Murrayfield bow (for Scotland) alongside Fraser Brown for Laidlaw and Ford respectively. Wales also took the opportunity to take Jenkins off for Paul James.
Into the last ten minutes and some good handling by Scotland allowed them to progress upfield through Hogg and Hidalgo-Clyne before a high tackle gave Scotland the penalty. Kicking for a lineout they then infringed and Biggar nudged it clear. Everyones favourite pantomime villain Mike Phillips came on for Webb at nine. The game was becoming fractious as Wales looked to run the clock down whilst Scotland retained a sense of urgency with the ten point gap weighing heavily. Wales were pinged for offside and Scotland again took the tap. Virtually camped on the line, Scotland eventually smuggled the ball down through Jim Hamilton who celebrated by starting a huge punch up. Finn Russell converted as the referee blew up for full time before the restart could be taken.
Final score: Scotland 23-26 Wales
The foundations may not be there yet but we’re definitely getting close.