A game of two halves
Graham Jenkins at the Millennium Stadium
February 12, 2012
Leigh Halfpenny helped guide Wales to their second victory in as many matches © Getty Images
Wales added some much-needed gloss to a Six Nations that has been battered by the elements and bad headlines with an impressive showing against a gutsy Scotland.
They love a good show at the Millennium Stadium, be it the pre-match fireworks, the big screen graphics or the sound system that you sense could quite possibly blow the retractable roof, which, not for the first time, is the envy of the rugby world, off this rugby cathedral. And with the wintry conditions that have blighted much of Europe and the Championship in recent days kept at bay, the stage was set for an advert for everything good about the Six Nations and we got that - eventually.
Both sides played their part in an absorbing clash that came alive after the break with a feast of running rugby adding to a rich tradition of thrilling clashes between these two sides. However, there appears to be another reoccurring theme in the battle for northern hemisphere supremacy - one not so welcome. This wouldn't be the Six Nations without a little controversy and referee Romain Poite did just enough to ensure that the officials will once again claim more than their fair share of column inches but thankfully it couldn't overshadow the game entirely.
Wales, heavily favoured coming into the game having seen off Ireland last weekend, did their best to live up to the hype and clearly came to play but Scotland, looking to bounce back from a narrow defeat to England, were in a defiant mood, perhaps inspired by those already convinced that their fortunes against Italy will be the barometer for their season.
Crucially, the hosts had an extra gear and knew exactly when to exploit it. They turned up the heat when the game was in the balance and it revealed the cracks in Scotland's armour. Wales made their celtic cousins pay dearly for their indiscipline and while they were guilty of not hammering home their advantage, not even the Scots' impressive industry and never-say-die attitude could overhaul a side now boasting significant momentum.
Fresh from tormenting the Irish, all eye were on Wales wing George North and the huge reception for his name pre-game hinted that that the speedster would have to carry the weight of expectation on his broad shoulders. Sadly his game ended prematurely with injury and while his loss was a real blow, this Wales side are so much more than a one-man team.
Step forward Alex Cuthbert. The Cardiff Blues pace man is cut from the same cloth as North and his 6ft 6in and 16st frame makes him a formidable threat in defence and attack. He made his presence felt in the first half and raised his game again after the break with his varied skillset leading to a try and setting up another. His ascent helped ease the pain of North's exit for both coach Warren Gatland and the Cardiff faithful.
With just two caps to his name there is clearly more to come from the 21-year-old and Wales can only hope he follows the same career curve as that of North and the arguably even more valuable Leigh Halfpenny. The Welsh fullback produced another assured display with his two tries in five second half minutes all but deciding the contest. But tries are only part of his repertoire with the 12 points that came courtesy of his boot and his rock-steady presence in defence underlining his class.
Wales' Alex Cuthbert takes the attack to Scotland © Getty Images
Wales' defence was once again brutal, with returning Dan Lydiate, Jonathan Davies and Mike Phillips as keen to leave their mark as anyone, but it was their ability to raise their game and force the errors from Scotland that proved to be the difference. It was not a perfect showing with concerns surrounding the lineout but the likely return of Alun Wyn Jones ahead of their clash with England give them added reason to not fear their latest trip to Twickenham - in truth, in this kind of form they should relish it and see it as a stepping stone to bigger things.
Scotland's tale of woe appears to know no end. There was an end to a four-game try drought but their notable efforts ultimately brought them no reward. An epic yet fruitless 21-phase at the end of the first half summed up their fortunes with their forwards and backs combining to drive within inches of the Welsh line only for prop Allan Jacobsen to knock on as lock Jim Hamilton looked to lend his weight to proceedings.
More costly errors in a telling 15-minute period after the break saw the game slip away from them. Largely self-inflicted, the mistakes were also the result of a Wales side ramping up the pressure. To their credit the Scots dug deep and offered hope of a brighter future. Fly-half Greig Laidlaw looked lively and with the help of scrum-half Chris Cusiter the Scots were playing with the kind of pace that has recently eluded them. And with the likes of lock Richie Gray, flanker Ross Rennie and replacement Stuart Hogg prepared to go above and beyond you sense it is not so bleak for Scotland fans.
Hogg, clearly brimming with confidence going by his choice of yellow boots, grabbed his opportunity with both hands - but sadly he did not manage to do the same with the ball at one crucial moment. His failure to take a pass cleanly resulted in a perfectly good try being ruled out by the referee in another dark day for the officials in this Championship.
Replays showed that Hogg did in fact rescue the ball before it touched the ground and to be fair that was a luxury that Poite was denied in what was just the latest example of why the International Rugby Board must revise the scope of the Television Match Official. It was a cruel and more importantly wrong call - sadly not the first and will not be the last if the game's governing body do not act.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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