Wales march on as Scots lament familiar failings
Two down, three to go. At least that’s how the Welsh optimists – and there were plenty of them streaming into the streets of Cardiff on Sunday night – will see it.
If that appears a bit presumptuous with a trip to Twickenham looming next, there is no sign of this crop of Wales players getting ahead of themselves. Their public can do that for them.
But there is no doubt confidence is oozing through the Red Dragonhood after following up their opening Six Nations win in Dublin with another exhilarating victory over Scotland in Cardiff.
Leigh Halfpenny has now score 105 points in 29 Tests for Wales
It is the fourth time Wales have won their opening two Six Nations fixtures, and their conversion rate is pretty good. Two Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008, only missing out in 2009.
If their failure in Paris three years ago was a reminder of potential pitfalls ahead, Wales will probably travel to south west London a week on Saturday as marginal favourites, a status they have not enjoyed since their 1970s heyday.
England may also have two wins from two, but when their coach Stuart Lancaster describes the Welsh fixture as “a significant challenge”, and Lewis Moody suggests it may be “a step too far” for his former team-mates at this stage of their development, they are realistic assessments.
Wales are further down the road, a point acknowledged by defence coach Shaun Edwards when asked to compare the current side with the one which launched Warren Gatland’s reign with a momentous victory at Twickenham four years ago.
“I think this team are probably a bit more advanced than the team in 2008,” Edwards noted. “That was our first game together, and there was not a huge understanding of what we wanted then, but we managed to pull off a famous win. Welsh wins at Twickenham have been pretty minimal down the years [two in the last 24 years] but if we can keep our discipline, first and foremost, like we did for the majority of the game today, then we will have a good chance.”
Injuries to George North, who hobbled off after "rolling his ankle" before half-time, Huw Bennett (calf) and Ryan Jones, who was icing a sore knee after leading Wales for a record-equalling 28th time in the absence of Sam Warburton, will again test the squad’s depth if any of them don’t recover in time.
But whereas losing three or four frontline players would have proved an insurmountable hurdle in recent years, Gatland has been able to manage his depleted resources effectively. He may even have two Lions in Matthew Rees and Alun Wyn Jones back in the selection mix for Twickenham.
The withdrawal of Warburton before kick-off could have proved damaging, but Aaron Shingler – who trained at open-side all week - earned the coach’s praise for an encouraging debut. Alongside him in the back row, Toby Faletau excelled again, while Dan Lydiate’s seamless return from injury earned the grafting flanker the man-of-the-match award.
Leigh Halfpenny must have run him close after another fine all-round performance, running ball purposefully out of defence, kicking five from six at goal and collecting two tries for his efforts.
Wing Alex Cuthbert justified Gatland’s decision to stick with him after his debut in Dublin was curtailed at half-time, his giant frame generating momentum on the counter-attack, while Greig Laidlaw simply couldn’t handle the youngster’s power as he barrelled through the Scotland fly-half’s tackle for his first Wales try.
Cuthbert may be “raw and very green” as Gatland described him afterwards, but along with North, who sent a wave of anticipation around the Millennium Stadium whenever the ball arrived in his hands, he offers a physical potency that opponents clearly find hard to handle.
Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies enjoyed another profitable afternoon in attack and defence and, with Ryan Jones filling the second-row vacancy left by Bradley Davies and Gethin Jenkins restored to the front row, the Wales engine room – a couple of line-out wobbles aside – purred smoothly enough, laying the platform for the backs to strut their stuff.
While Scotland contributed to their own downfall, Chris Cusiter’s error from the second-half kick-off setting in motion a horror 16 minutes for the visitors, the ruthlessness and composure with which Wales seized the moment and finished their three tries was compelling to behold.
That was in stark contrast to a Scotland side who again did many things right, as they had against England, but repeatedly failed to summon the required skill to reward their endeavours.
A prime attacking position from a scrum 30m out in centre-field came to nothing, before Allan Jacobsen’s knock-on a metre from the line completed another desperate failure to finish off a 21-phase period of pressure as half-time loomed.
Your heart bled for the Scottish supporters at that point, as the familiar sight of Andy Robinson’s ‘bulldog chewing a wasp’ routine in his box flashed up on the big screen.
“We are a decent side and we went toe-to-toe with Wales, who are obviously a good team,” the coach declared afterwards. In their physicality, attitude and spirit – particularly from 27-6 down with 24 minutes still remaining – you couldn’t argue with him.
But decent sides don’t continually bungle gilt-edged opportunities to score when the game is in the balance, which is fast becoming a Scottish trademark.
Both Robinson and captain Ross Ford insisted that belief within the squad remains high, but a fourth straight Test defeat, and only one victory in their last 13 Six Nations away games, does not suggest a side at ease with the pressure of sustaining high standards for long enough in hostile arenas.
Not that home offers great comfort, with tournament favourites France visiting Murrayfield next.
Wales on the other hand have no such worries, or lack of conviction. A Triple Crown date at Twickenham awaits, and it is one they will relish. Negotiate that, and they know another Grand Slam decider in Cardiff will be in the offing. Exciting times for Welsh rugby? You bet.