Scotland rue Wales' late show
Huw Baines at the Millennium Stadium
February 13, 2010
Chris Paterson cuts a forlorn figure © Getty Images
The noise was deafening. Eighty minutes of forlorn singing came to an end with a rapturous roar at the Millennium Stadium, heralding redemption for a Wales team that had endured a torrid afternoon.
Shane Williams, a player destined to become part of the fabric of Welsh rugby along with Gareth, Gerald, JPR et al, dusted himself off after scoring the winning try against Scotland and promptly washed away the taste of a scrappy, uninspiring performance.
In a finish that will live long in the memory for its overwhelming drama and sense of theatre, Wales provided a happy ending for their adoring fans in a game that threatened to be an embarrassing defeat for lengthy stretches of the afternoon. Leigh Halfpenny and Lee Byrne scored Wales' other tries in a final salvo that eclipsed Scotland's excellent display, with Halfpenny's electric burst along the dead ball line to make the conversion easier a brilliant piece of play and a telling piece of drama.
Scotland were rarely out of control in a contest that exploded into life in the final 10 minutes, when Wales exploited the same disciplinary woes that had undermined their effort at Twickenham last weekend. Scott Lawson and Phil Godman were ordered from the field by referee George Clancy, allowing Wales space and crucially belief. Lawson's interference with Richie Rees at a ruck was a moment of stupidity not far removed from Alun-Wyn Jones' now fabled trip, and Godman saw yellow for a professional foul on Lee Byrne that on another day could have seen the referee under the posts for a penalty try.
The game began with a celebration of Chris Paterson's 100th cap, the venerable Edinburgh fullback jogging out alone to set in motion Scotland's best chance of victory in Cardiff since their last triumph way back in 2002. Unfortunately it wasn't to be. Paterson lasted only half an hour before succumbing to injury, his three-year tournament kicking streak falling in the process, and Scotland similarly saw bright hopes fade into murk and gloom by the final whistle.
The pre-match talk had centred on the Millennium Stadium's roof being ordered to remain open by the Scots, with Warren Gatland predictably engaging in a war of words with his opposite number Andy Robinson that detracted from the task at hand. Underneath milky winter sunshine, his side produced a performance largely bereft of invention, doubtless leaving vast numbers inside the ground wondering why exactly verbal tirades were being delivered when there was obviously plenty to be ironed out on the training field.
Scotland, by comparison, produced a performance of poise and simplicity, with Dan Parks justifying his recall with a commanding performance at fly-half to ram home Wales' inefficiency in the first-half, including a clutch of drop-goals and a brilliant grubber for Max Evans' try. Williams' try should not be allowed to mask the shortcomings of the home side, who were outbattled at the breakdown and presented nothing of the organisation that Shaun Edwards' defence has become famous for.
Wales missed first-up tackles that they don't usually miss, with Gareth Cooper and James Hook conspiring to allow John Barclay to burst clear of a packed Welsh midfield for the opening try and Kelly Brown enjoying the freedom of the field on a number of occasions. Wales dominated the scrum and the possession stats but were unable to exert the control that came so easily to Parks, with Cooper again drawing the sting of his own attack with laboured delivery.
The Blues scrum-half was hauled off at the break, with Rees slotting in and happy to follow the Scottish model of doing the basics first and foremost. The lineout functioned in the early stages, the introduction of Jonathan Thomas, Wales' finest lineout forward for some years, proved to be an important cog.
Scotland will struggle to take heart from a performance that was vastly improved from their opening loss to France, and one that on balance should have comfortably won them the game. The loss of Paterson and Thom Evans forced a defensive reshuffle that would have cause untold disruption in previous seasons, but Robinson's side stuck to their task and continued to give Wales very little elbow room in the tackle.
Jamie Roberts enjoyed his best outing since the Lions tour to South Africa and provided some cut and thrust for the home side, but it was the ambition of Williams that once again lit up an average performance. Scotland will feel hard done by and need to regroup before facing Italy, while Wales can once again salute their little dynamo and enjoy the shoe being on the other foot in terms of discipline. Much work to do for both, but what a ride.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.