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2024 Women’s Six Nations: Wales 18 – 20 Scotland

Emma Wassell - pic © Peter Watt
Emma Wassell - pic © Peter Watt/N50 Sports
Wales

Wales

2024 Guinness Women's Six NationsSat 23rd Mar 2024Cardiff Arms Park, CardiffKick-off: 4:45 pm (UK)18-20

Scotland

Referee: Clara Munarini (FIR)| TV: BBC iPlayer

Scotland overturned a run of narrow defeats against Wales to come away with a first win in Cardiff since 2004 and seven test victories in a row for the first time in their history. Here are some talking points from the match.

Professionalism and confidence make a difference

After defeat to France in Round 3 last year, Scotland were 11th in the world rankings, roughly the same position they had been for years.

Now, 15 months into professional contracts, they sit at their highest-ever rank of 6th. In this fixture last year, it looked like Wales’ might be pulling ahead having moved earlier to contracts, but now it feels like things have levelled up.

Whereas Wales’ power up front eventually got the win last year, this year Scotland managed to keep things pretty even, and Wales were not able to find a real edge at scrum time or dominate the breakdown as much. With every game, this team looks better prepared and better capable of showing their talents.

All the players have clearly improved and that is most typified by Helen Nelson. Her game management is smarter than ever and her goal kicking, previously up and down from one game to the next, is so consistent and giving Scotland an edge – her touchline conversions in retrospect won that game.

The other big difference is the confidence that comes from earning six wins in a row against good-quality opposition. The run of defeats seemed to weigh heavily at times, now you see the team believe they are going to win, and they are finding a way to fight out of hard situations.

Yes, the difference was a missed conversion but I wouldn’t have put it past them to find a way to get the win if scores had gone level. This team finally knows how good it is.

Defensive marvels

For all that they scored two brilliant tries, this win was built on a rock-solid defence.

Scotland made 164 tackles and missed just five, an incredible tackle percentage. This wasn’t passive defence either, Wales constantly struggled to make headway and frequently found themselves going backwards, and the lack of forward momentum led to either handling areas or resorting to kicking and handing back possession to Scotland.

In the first half, Wales failed to score from the 4th minute to the stroke of half time and they had barely any chances to score within that either as Scotland smothered them.

Top performers included Emma Wassell with 20, teenage debutant Alex Stewart with 17 and Evie Gallagher with 14 – seven of the starting pack made 12 or more.

It was only towards the end of the match when Wales got field position close to the try line and could activate their pick and go game near the line that they came within a sniff of a try, from further out they were snuffed out by the blue wall.

Strength in depth comes through again

Two stand-out players might not have been in the expected first-choice XV but they took their opportunities to shine. While Francesa McGhie was deservedly making a splash on one wing in last year’s W6N, Coreen Grant is now going about her work on the other wing, defensively astute and hardworking and occasionally getting to show the clinical finishing that you can see most weeks for Saracens.

Her try was spectacularly taken and she nearly had an even more incredible second but for a last-ditch tackle from Jasmine Joyce, one of the best in the world at that skill. She seemed to beat at least one tackler every time she got the ball.

How the coaches choose a back three when everyone is fit I do not know.

Meanwhile, with Rachel McLachlan not fully recovered from injury, up stepped 19-year-old Alex Stewart, born after the last time Scotland won in Cardiff, absolutely ready and willing to take it to the fierce Welsh back row.

She carried excellently, even throwing in a double pump dummy at one point to create a gap to storm through. She racked up some impressive stats – 17 tackles, 27 attacking rucks hit and 10 clear outs (the latter two were the highest across all teams in round 1).

Watching the game back, it was noticeable that a couple of times Scotland got turned over were during attacking rucks she wasn’t present at, suggesting she was also doing a lot of unseen work when Scotland were getting quick ball. Her rip in the tackle earlier in the second half provided the turnover spark for Scotland’s second try. The club game and the Celtic Challenge have once again shown what a production line and pathway they can be, but to make the jump to international level so assuredly is impressive.

Bench use remains confusing

Given that Scotland really do have depth across the squad now, and the bench was stacked, it was surprising that Bryan Easson didn’t make fuller use of it.

Although the instinct to not remove players who are playing well does make some sense, it feels like one of the next steps Scotland need to take to close the gap to the teams above is to see use a full match-day 23 rather than a starting XV who might be replaced if needed.

Elliann Clarke replaced Christine Belisle at tight head on 60 minutes, but the next tactical replacement wasn’t until the 74th minute when the highly experienced Molly Wright came on for Leah Bartlett. The likes of Louise McMillan (a 68th minute injury replacement) and Wright are powerful, experienced players who are hardly a drop off, however excellent the players they are replacing.

But they weren’t really given a chance to make an impact, and neither was Chloe Rollie who only got a five-minute cameo. Meryl Smith was having an excellent game, but Rollie running at tired Welsh players would have been worth a look surely? In the end, it didn’t cause Scotland any harm, but it remains strange not to make use of the class on the bench – with Mairi McDonald, Eva Donaldson and Shona Campbell all going unused as well.

Still room for improvement

One of the most exciting things about this result was this wasn’t Scotland at their very best, and there are clear places they can improve.

The obvious one was the lineout, which is usually one of their biggest strengths – 80% of tries last year came as a result of that platform. They lost one-third of their lineouts in this match –most of them came in a second-quarter cluster.

To have any chance against France this weekend, it will need to function somewhere near its best and give them that platform for attack against possibly the best defence in women’s rugby.

They will also want to be a little more clinical in attack, as for all they had a lot of attacking opportunities in the first half, they didn’t always come away with points, sometimes getting turned over a little easily. It was noticeable how effective Scotland were when they got quick ruck speed and how much they could stress and get around the Wales defence – they had five linebreaks and beat 16 defenders.

Occasionally the passing got a little wilder, with runners having to check themselves and take balls above their heads, or the ball getting slowed down too much. There was a little bit of bad luck too – Lana Skeldon and Bonar’s injuries both saw promising attacking positions stopped due to play passing close by.

If Scotland can put together phases at the high speed they found in the lead-up to the first try, then France will have to be at their best to keep them out.

One final improvement will need to be discipline – 13 penalties conceded was the worst of all six teams over the first round.  But in many ways, it is encouraging to know there are some relatively easy fixes to take their performance to an even higher level as they go into a match against the world’s third-best team, hopefully in front of a record crowd.

6 Responses

  1. Excellent report – watched the game after reading it and couldn’t agree more (especially with regard to use of the bench). In fact, with hindsight, I almost didn’t need to watch the game!

    Alex Stewart is one to watch.

    1. Thank you. And yes, Alex is definitely one to watch. I hadn’t quite twigged how young she was during the Celtic Challenge as she was so assured, big future ahead

  2. Excellent point on that conversion being the difference too – though the ref missing a blatant knock on inside the last ten minutes shouldn’t really have allowed Wales anywhere close!

    1. It took a lot of willpower not to mention that knock on but I’ve long since decided Clara’s refereeing is unanalysable and just a random force in the universe….

  3. Great report – glad to know it’s not just me wondering about the bench! Especially strange when the bench for this game as you said was stacked with talent.

    1. Thank you, it’s partly selfish, those players on the bench are so good, I want to watch them too and see them get their chance to shine!

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