This game was billed by many as one to look forward to, with both teams picking up perhaps surprising victories last weekend, and both came into this one knowing they had a chance of being top of the table after this weekend with a win. That set the scene for one of the closest and most hard-fought games we have witnessed in a long time, with both sides having plenty to be pleased about in their game.
Scotland’s first try came when winger Darcy Graham intercepted a pass at the back from Wales, and this showed two things. Firstly, Wales are still making defensive errors, and, secondly, Scotland are more alive to opportunities to win the ball from their opponents. Scrum-half Ali Price and fly-half Finn Russell were both involved in the build-up to this one, and the fact that there were several phases before Graham burst through showed how Scotland are patient when attacking, gently pushing forwards with their movements, but not making mistakes and giving away penalties.
They defended really well, too, and were holding firm when Wales were attacking, not allowing the away side to get through them. This came down to several key tactics that Scotland were using. Wales’ biggest problem in recent games has been their lineout, as they continually lose them. However, in this game, they won more, partly because Scotland were not jumping to contest them. Instead, they allowed Wales to win the ball, playing it quickly backwards, focusing on organising their defensive line instead. This meant that Wales couldn’t run through them. It says a lot that the first time Scotland left any space open led to Wales’ try from Gloucester winger Louis Rees-Zammit, so the home side played well and Wales found it hard to break them down.
In the second half, Scotland made plenty of handling errors, and their discipline seemed to have gone. The red card for Glasgow Warriors prop Zander Fagerson was perhaps a little harsh, although, by the letter of the law, it was the right decision, but it definitely made it harder for his team in the second half. They were almost trying too hard at times, and ended up losing the ball forwards when in good positions, lacking a bit of composure overall. However, the thing about Scotland is that they don’t give up, and their third try from captain and full-back Stuart Hogg demonstrated that perfectly; it came after a series of scrums, before Hogg found a bit of space to go over the line in the corner. However, unfortuntely for Scotland, they just fell short at the end, and a losing bonus point was all they could take.
As for Wales, they had a few early problems, such as losing a lineout inside the first four minutes, and this has, as mentioned, been a major area of concern for them in recent games. Whenever they got the ball, they tended to give it away, and were creating their own problems most of the time. One example that highlighted this was Scotland’s second try, when two Welsh players got in each other’s way in defence, and Hogg picked up the ball and scored in relatively easy circumstances. This is what is holding Wales back under Wayne Pivac so far, and is what new defence coach Gethin Jenkins needs to focus on.
However, one positive was that they looked more confident in the lineout, even if they were uncontested, and this should give them confidence going forward. If they can be more dominant with them, they will have a better chance of finding gaps in opposing defences before they have had time to organise, meaning they will pose more threat in attack.
They started the second half better, holding up a potential try from Scotland’s Newcastle Falcons back row Gary Graham on the line, and then finding winger Liam Williams in space on the wing to go over a short time later, and their confidence was definitely there. This is what we have wanted to see from them, but they haven’t shown it up to this point. However, it was refreshing to see them playing with more speed and purpose, which should also help them relax into games much more in the future. They also sorted out their defence much more, too, particularly in front of their own try line, and forced Scotland to come up with new ideas to beat them. This led to attacking moves from the home side coming to a premature end, so it just shows how much Wales rely on their defence to cause problems for opponents. However, they were still conceding penalties, giving Scotland constant opportunities to attack, so their performance still isn’t perfect, but there is plenty for them to be pleased about nonetheless.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
There was really only one contender for this, with Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit having one of the best games of his short career so far. The 20-year-old defended well, attacked well, showed plenty of pace and creativity, which we know he has in abundance, and kicked well, finding touch perfectly when needed. It was a complete performance from him, and there is no doubting that he is a future star of Welsh rugby.
The Six Nations takes a break next weekend. Scotland’s next game sees them travel to unbeaten France in two weeks, playing in Paris on Sunday afternoon. Wales, meanwhile, host old rivals England in Cardiff in the late afternoon game the day before.