by Alex Dimond
Wales kicked off the defence of their Six Nations crown with a solid 26-13 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield.
For 65 minutes it was an impressive and professional performance from a Welsh side that many have tipped to complete a historic second consecutive Six Nations Grand Slam. They sucked in the Scottish defence and spread the ball out wide at will, creating problems for the opposition defenders that they struggled to deal with.
In the last 15 minutes, however, Scotland offered glimpses to suggest to the vocal home fans that they could go on to make an impact in the reminder of the tournament.
“It was potentially a huge banana skin for us today, so we are just glad to get off the mark with a win,” said Welsh captain Martyn Williams, who was standing in for the injured Ryan Jones. “Scotland are never going to lie down and let you walk all over them. The good thing is there a lot of things for us to work on, and a lot of things to improve.”
The final scoreline — massaged by a rare poor kicking performance from Stephen Jones — was arguably a fair reflection of a match that Wales started explosively, before fading away and allowing their opponents to ask some awkward questions.
If Chris Patterson had managed to apply some downward pressure on the ball behind the Welsh line late on, it could have set up a tense finish for all concerned.
As it was, Patterson was adjudged to have knocked the ball on — and Wales proceeded to do enough to see the game out.
“To be honest, the game was ours to lose, and we said that before the game,” said Wales’ coach Warren Gatland. “I think we lost a little bit of momentum around the 60 minute mark when we tried to make a few changes, perhaps we were a little over-confident.”
Rank outsiders at the beginning of the match, the Scottish starters had obviously been told to be very physical in the tackle while defending, and try to spread the ball out wide while attacking. Unfortunately, neither tactic quite worked.
Errant tackles from winger Montgomery and prop Geoff Cross — one that resulted in the debutant also being awarded a yellow card — ended up with each man lying unconscious on the pitch. Cross did not return after his time in the sin bin, and Montgomery never fully recovered from the effects of his tackle and was eventually substituted.
In attack, the Scots attempts to get the ball wide frequently put them under pressure, and it was little surprise when stand-in centre Tom Shanklin crossed for the game’s first try.
Alun Wyn Jones and wingers Leigh Halfpenny and Shane Williams added further tries, before Max Evans provided a consolation for Scotland before they dominated the last period of a play — thanks in part due to Martyn Williams’ sin bin.
Intriguingly, the last 20 minutes of the games should have a positive effect on both teams ahead of next weekend’s fixtures.
Scotland will go into their match in Paris against France with a bit more confidence, knowing that they did a great job restricting arguably the best side in tournament, and even caused them a few headaches in the process.
Wales on the other hand, might just have been reminded that there are no free passes in this tournament. England might not be in great form — a fact only reinforced by their labouring performance against Italy on Saturday — but they will still capitalise on any errors their opponents make. Wales should still have enough in their locker to win — especially with home advantage at the Millenium Stadium — but the slightly panicked finish to the game at Murrayfield should at least keep them honest.
Judging by their words in the post-match press conference, both Gatland and Williams know exactly what they need to improve before next week. They seem to have learned something about their side from the performance — something that England coach Martin Johnson might not.
All in all though, with Ireland performing so well against France on Saturday, many spectators might already be circling the 21st March clash between Wales and Ireland at the Millenium Stadium, anticipating that encounter to be the deciding game of the 2009 competition.
Scotland (3) 13
Tries: Evans Con: Paterson Pens: Paterson (2)
Wales (16) 26
Tries: Shanklin, AW Jones, Halfpenny, Williams Pens: S Jones (2)