What a difference a game makes
February 12, 2011
Wales lock Bradley Davies salutes the travelling fans © PA Photos
The next time you pick up a newspaper to read about Wales, there will be no mention of their ongoing losing streak. More than the performance, more than their shortcomings, that is what Warren Gatland and his players will take from Saturday's gritty victory over Scotland at Murrayfield.
This was not the thrill-ride that captivated the Millennium Stadium last season, nor was it the Murrayfield dirge that plunged Wales into doom and gloom back in 2007. In reality the game, as a spectacle, was pitched somewhere between those polar opposites but should be cherished by Welsh fans and players alike - coming out on top over 80 minutes has been an elusive goal for the best part of a year.
Famed tennis coach Brad Gilbert, not the most expressive of players in his time, once noted: "Somebody said that I played ugly, but I never thought I played ugly other than I competed my ass off."
His words are a neat fit for Wales. To the neutral this was an 'ugly' win for a side lacking in confidence but it could well be just the tonic prior to a gruelling international season. It was a victory crucially built on everything that has troubled them of late - they were magnificent in defence and secured vital momentum through their back-row and midfield, who cast aside the crabbing runs seen in their opening loss to England in favour of the direct approach.
Shouts of 'straighten up' have filled pubs for months but this weekend Jamie Roberts, who clearly took the instruction to go looking for the ball to heart, Jonathan Davies and Ryan Jones worked tirelessly with and without the pill - the midfield defence was unshakeable and one of the main reasons why Scotland were unable to follow up on their three tries against France last weekend.
It was also a tale of two fly-halves, cast from different moulds. James Hook's selection at No.10 for Wales filled many a column inch in the build-up and he showed every inch of his class in a dynamite opening stanza for the visitors, putting Shane Williams over with a smart break and taking his shots at goal to open up what proved to be a decisive 16-0 advantage.
It was not all good for the Perpignan-bound playmaker though, and the introduction of Stephen Jones was required as the game stumbled to its conclusion. Jones may not be fashionable but he is rock solid in defence and a cool head when tasked with making the most of limited possession. Put the two together and you've got some player. Dan Carter, I think he's called.
On the other side, Dan Parks may be an astute tactician on his day but he is no playmaker. The Scotland fly-half was targeted by Roberts and looked flustered as Scotland made little ground. His second-half cross kick to Shane Williams will have been viewed as a hanging offence by the forwards that had scrapped through 15 phases for a meagre few metres.
A major worry for the Scots will also be their error count - they dominated possession but as they were not afforded time or space like last weekend there was little invention and they lacked the ball-carrying threat of the visitors. In the absence of the superb Richie Gray, loose-head Allan Jacobsen was arguably their biggest influence in the forwards and had Hugo Southwell not left the field injured, causing the introduction of the excellent Sean Lamont, Wales would have enjoyed an even easier ride.
Scotland felt the pain experienced by the visitors in round one when they failed to capitalise on the sin-binning of Bradley Davies and Lee Byrne at the tail end of the first-half. The fact that Wales emerged from such a dicey situation with just three points against them was a telling psychological blow, just as their own failure to make England pay for Louis Deacon's yellow card last weekend derailed their challenge.
Next up for Wales is a challenging trip to face Italy in Rome - somewhere that they have come a cropper before. A win at the Stadio Flaminio is non-negotiable for Gatland after the events of this weekend and it could set them up for a tasty home tie with Ireland.
For Scotland, the picture looks surprisingly bleak given the positive energy generated by their trip to Paris. They have not scored a try on their own track in the Six Nations since February 2009 and this showing was far more reminiscent of last year's turgid draw with England than it was of their purposeful victory over Ireland or their under-appreciated series win in Argentina.
It may be a cliché, but this time it's true. What a difference a game makes.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.