Scotland headed to Cardiff in search of a first win since 2002 and a first win against Wales anywhere since Warren Gatland took charge. With the roof shut in the Principality Stadium (as it is now known) the crowd were against them, history was against them and the pre-tournament favourites were against them.
That they came away so close (again) to a victory is a testament to the effort Scotland put in, but sadly also there were many familiar failings on show.
The Scots lined up in the tunnel with looks of grim determination on their faces and even Vern Cotter and our Welsh forwards coach Jonathan Humphries sang along to Flower of Scotland to aid the visiting support.
Scotland reacted accordingly, fired up from the start but still contrived to fumble two high balls in as many minutes. The scrum also had a rocky start giving the Welsh an early attacking lineout and the usual maul to try and elicit a penalty or at best a try but a Welsh knock on killed the move.
Perhaps stung by criticism last weekend, Tommy Seymour was grabbing every high kick put his way and some that he had no right to in a purposeful performance, but it was a batted hand from Jamie Roberts or Duncan Taylor into the hands of Gareth Davies – who was certainly offside before the kick went up and possibly still offside when the ball came down to him (Law 11.1 states “A player who receives an unintentional throw forward is not offside” so it may come down to who touched it last). Davies led the Scots defence a merry dance before touching down for the game’s first try.
Scotland came right back led by Laidlaw who was suddenly delivering quick ball and an attacking threat which kept the Welsh defence honest and opened up more space. Just when it seemed like they might run out of ideas in the face of a sturdy red defensive line, Finn Russell much improved on last weekend – jinked a perfectly weighted kick into the in-goal area, and Tommy Seymour capped a brilliant opening spell to pounce on it for an instant response.
From there Hogg and Seymour were causing Wales all sorts of trouble during a breathless opening 20 minutes and there was a repeat of last week when John Barclay found himself with unexpected ball and was ambling down the touchline with a pace man outside him. His kick forward was marginally better than Finn’s effort last week, but only just and denied Bennett a chance to impose himself on the tournament.
Hogg was then unfortunately lost to the game to his obvious disgust (believed to be a back spasm – Hogg was still 4th on the metres made list despite only playing for half an hour). His replacement was Ruaridh Jackson, on the bench at the last minute for Sean Lamont, who was in turn starting in place of the injured Sean Maitland. Not long after that bit of bad news though, Laidlaw put Scotland in the lead with a long range penalty.
Dan Biggar (not injured) levelled the score on 35 minutes after another 50/50 call at the scrum from referee George Clancy but Scotland were looking comfortable on the ball and late starter Sean Lamont was to the fore as the visiting team secured another good set of phases and a penalty kick to take the lead on the stroke of half time.
Half-time: Wales 10-13 Scotland
Tommy Seymour resumed his impressive performance with another brilliant take in the air and John Hardie was tackling everything once again but there was always the worry that Scotland were on the wrong side of the officiating and so it proved as Biggar equalised within 6 minutes of the restart.
Scotland looked far more assured than last week against England and it was a helter-skelter game that seemed to suit them, with plenty of chances to either play the ball that was kicked to them, or kick for territory with both Russell and Jackson making gains initially.
The scrum too finally exerted some pressure on 53 mins giving another chance to take the lead back.
From there, Wales looked to move away from “Gatlandball” slightly and were starting to eke out chances out wide. They were also starting to pounce on Scottish mistakes as Hardie spilled the ball after a good line break and Tom James streaked down the left wing. Only the determined tackle of Duncan Taylor prevented a try but with Welsh pressure on, Laidlaw spilled it over his own line allowing Wales to put the pressure on.
A series of scrums on the Scottish 5m line saw the navy pack hold firm despite the roars of the home crowd. Clancy whistled and reset repeatedly and while Nel could handle that he was powerless to stop Jamie Roberts at full tilt whose try made it 20-16.
From there it was sadly familiar as Scottish lapses in concentration and a weaker bench gave George North some huge holes to run through that just hadn’t been there in the game to that point. For the Welsh it was the try of the tournament, for us it was like “A Nightmare on Caroline Street 5”.
Taylor, who like Scott the week before had been given scant opportunities with ball in hand scored a fantastic individual try at the death as Sam Hidalgo-Clyne tried to up the pace where Laidlaw had perhaps been flagging alongside other starters like Nel who had been asked to go the distance.
Wales brought on a better bench, and in the end that was the difference. With a mere minute to try and grab a win in this of all venues there was no Shane Williams-style last minute magic for Scotland, just more of the same. Our search for a fairytale goes on.
Chase, fumble, repeat.
SRBlog Man of the Match: Laidlaw and the Gray brothers were much improved this week but for responding so nobly to the aerial challenge when the Welsh obviously thought Scotland would succumb it has to be try scorer Tommy Seymour.