Scotland hoping to kick on as they welcome Wales to Murrayfield
Gregor Townsend’s favourites will want to prove England win wasn’t a flash in the pan
Hamish Watson kicks to touch ending Scotland’s winless run at Twickenham. Photograph: Steve Bardens/Getty
The last time Scotland defeated England, they stalled. The only two victories in their next nine Six Nations matches from 2018 were against Italy as the light of the approaching dawn turned out to be a candle in the wind. It has tended to be that way this century: between their 2006 and 2008 victories over the auld enemy at Murrayfield, they lost eight games out of 10 and only overcame Italy in their next 10.
As Scotland this weekend tried on the mantle of firm favourites for the visit of Wales to Murrayfield, why should last week’s first triumph at Twickenham for 38 years be any different? One reason is that it was not built on raw emotion as one-off victories often are: think Wales in 1989, 1993 and 2007 against England.
Scotland did not play the role of underdog at Twickenham, snapping at the heels of their betters and putting them off their stride. They took on England at their strongest point, the set-pieces, and so dominated the breakdown that they milked it for penalties, as they had against Wales in Llanelli three months before. They controlled possession and played most of the game in their opponent’s half.
Their one disappointment was that their margin of victory was an unconverted try, although given England’s lack of an attacking threat and no opportunity to kick for goal in the second half, Scotland were not hanging on at the end. The absence of spectators helped them, but such was the maturity of their play, their conviction and an appreciation of what was possible, that they would probably have silenced a crowd.
It was not a one-off in that it was their fourth successive victory in the Six Nations, three of which came away from Edinburgh. They last time they managed that was when they overcame England 13-7 at Murrayfield to secure the 1990 championship and the grand slam. Their tournament story since then has largely been one of an occasional notable victory interrupting a losing streak, although they won the title in 1999 when Wales denied England the grand slam at Wembley.
Scotland have too often lacked a foundation, but in Rory Sutherland, Jonny Gray and Hamish Watson they have forwards to build a pack around. The likes of George Turner, Matt Fagerson and Jamie Ritchie were prominent at Twickenham, and although Maro Itoje hounded Ali Price around the fringes, Finn Russell at outhalf had enough time to unfold the defensive blanket in front of him.
Scotland have had to make three changes from Twickenham with Ritchie, Cameron Redpath, impressive on debut outside Russell last weekend, and the wing Sean Maitland all injured, but Wales are even more disrupted with three of the three-quarters who started last Sunday’s victory over Ireland in Cardiff, including the influential again George North, ruled out along with the scrum-half Tomos Williams and three blind-side flankers.
Wales will pose less of a threat over the ball than England and they are not as proficient in the lineout while they lack a powerful ball-carrier behind. Their recent record at Murrayfield is impressive, one defeat in their last six visits, and the victory over Ireland, their first over a team in the top 10 of the world rankings since they pipped France in the 2019 World Cup quarter-final, was a desperately needed injection after their worst run in the Six Nations since 2007.
Ireland, like France in Japan, were reduced to 14 men, although their red card came early in the first half rather than the second. One of the curses of the modern game, and it could be down to coaching or a tendency for players to stick to a gameplan regardless knowing the blame for failure would lie elsewhere, is the lack of a reaction when confronted by the unexpected or the unanticipated.
England were blighted by it long before Eddie Jones pitched up and Wales last weekend became vulnerable when the Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony was sent off. Having been in control of the game, they trailed at half-time and it took the interval team-talk for them to adjust and put width on the game to stretch their opponents.
Wales are like a driver with a faulty sat-nav: they know where they want to go, but cannot fix on the best route. They were hanging on against Ireland despite their numerical advantage, a legacy of the year before, but the bulk of the side knows what it takes to win the championship, unlike Scotland. Which is why this weekend is more significant than Twickenham for the hosts. If Scotland are to overcome years of mediocrity and even nonentity, they need to be able to embrace expectation and ride the shots of a team that does not look as well equipped, such as Wales.
It is a long time since Scotland have been in this position, making it a step into the unknown, and it is their turn to play host without supporters to urge them on. “That’s a threat for us and we have to create our own energy,” said their head coach, Gregor Townsend. If they do, they will likely start a Six Nations campaign with two victories for the first time and continue to pull away from the past.
Wales: L Halfpenny; L Rees-Zammit, O Watkin, N Tompkins, L Williams; D Biggar, G Davies; W Jones , K Owens, T Francis, A Beard, A W Jones (capt), A Wainwright, J Tipuric, T Faletau. Replacements: E Dee, R Jones, L Brown, W Rowlands, J Botham, K Hardy, C Sheedy, W Halaholo.
Scotland: S Hogg; D Graham, C Harris, J Lang, D van der Merwe; F Russell, A Price; R Sutherland, G Turner, Z Fagerson, S Cummings, J Gray, B Thomson, H Watson, M Fagerson. Replacements: D Cherry, O Kebble, WP Nel, R Gray, G Graham, S Steele, J van der Walt, H Jones. – Guardian