After the two most passionate, spine-tingling anthems in the tournament, the first points on the board came from a successful penalty kicked by Leigh Halfpenny. There was early praise for prop Gethin Jenkins, who would go on to compensate for an uncharacteristically below-par game against England by making crucial turnovers and covering much-needed ground; commentator Jonathan Davies heralded him as “one of the most talented players Wales has ever had”.
Despite the efforts of Jenkins and the other forwards, however, a turnover by Finn Russell resulted in Scotland’s Stuart Hogg crossing from 70m for the first try of the match, converted by skipper Greig Laidlaw. By the 30-minute mark, Scotland had the lead at 10-6 following a penalty each, but tempers frayed when Dan Biggar collided mid-air with a clumsy high tackle from Russell, resulting in a yellow card for the latter for taking a player out in the air and a penalty for Wales.
Although a red card looked to be a possibility as it was argued competition for the ball was not shown, Russell pulled away from the tackle at the last minute and so avoided further injury to himself and Biggar, and a sending off similar to Hogg’s dismissal which proved so costly in last year’s battle. Wales took full advantage of Scotland’s missing man, with a great pass from Alun Wyn Jones and an incisive effort from Alex Cuthbert to help scrum-half Rhys Webb cross for his fourth try in eleven games for the men in red.
However, Wales’ jubilance was short-lived as centre Jonathan Davies was, in turn, issued with a yellow card for apparent foul play against Johnnie Beattie. Consistency decreed his sending off, but this was countered by several pundits who argued that there was clear competition for the ball shown in Davies’ case. Nevertheless, Wales went into the half-time break 10-16 up, but one man down.
The second half began with a weakened Wales conceding a penalty to chip away at their lead, but they responded in kind just before the 50-minute mark with a Halfpenny kick hitting the right post but still bouncing over, as his nation let out the breath it had been collectively holding. A test of Scotland’s defence came in the final quarter of the game as Wales were awarded another penalty and chose to kick to corner, resulting in Williams flying over the line for what could have been Wales’ second try, but after consulting the TMO referee Glen Jackson disallowed it due to obstruction of the defender on Wales’ part.
With Wales restricting Scotland to their own half, Jonathan Davies breached their defence to run in a try right under the posts, redeeming himself for his earlier sin-binning and putting Wales in the ascendancy at 16-26. Hogg’s infamous “red mist” descended at Halfpenny’s expense as Scotland put immense pressure on Wales in their 22, but an inspired break towards the try line from Sam Hidalgo-Clyne came to nothing when Mark Bennett burst across only to have the try disallowed due to a forward pass.
Jim Hamilton fared better in the 79th minute, grounding out a try which immediately descended into a mass brawl as players littered the tryline, needlessly grappling and throwing punches. The clock turned red a mere five seconds after Scotland’s conversion was added to the board, and Jackson blew his whistle for the end of play in a much-discussed controversial decision not to give Scotland the restart, despite the clock running on through the aforementioned fisticuffs.
The Scottish players and coaching staff looked to be ranging from bemused to furious, but Wales seemed happy to call it a day and chalk up a 23-26 win, with Alun Wyn Jones richly deserving his Man of the Match title for his tireless work in the ruck and line-out.
In post-match analysis, the verdict from former Wales outside-half Arwel Thomas was that it was “a much better all-round performance” from Wales moving on from their disappointing opener, with their relentless kick-chasing and aerial game proving to be the winning elements of their game plan. Former Wales flanker Martyn Williams said that the inexperienced Scottish team had “‘white line fever’ and weren’t clinical enough”, and although they created more opportunities for themselves than Wales did, Wales grabbed more of those opportunities and used them to better effect.
Looking ahead to facing France in a fortnight’s time, Welsh fly-half legend Phil Bennett called for Gatland to drop Cuthbert in favour of North, rather than a straight in-and-out swap for Williams, who he described as “the outstanding back in regional rugby this season”. In this time in-between games, it would be in Wales’ best interest to regroup and focus on tailoring their game plan to make it relevant to their opposition, and basing team selection on performance rather than name, as the game waiting ahead at Paris’ Stade de France is sure to be an intimidating confrontation.