When it was all over, the wonder was that Wales got away with it. They may have been nine points up at half-time but they came under intolerable pressure afterwards and it seemed they had to break before it. Scotland came at them with everything they had, on and on, again and again, and yet somehow, at the end of it all, Wales were seven points clear and one game closer to winning the grand slam. Warren Gatland said he felt as if his team had forgotten how to lose after they came back from 16-0 down to beat France in the opening round. Six weeks later they proved this was true. This win was one of their great escapes.
One winced watching the Scottish players run into contact, knowing they were going to get splattered, battered backwards and buried under the red. It was like watching flies charge a windshield. The Scots lost four players inside the first 30 minutes. Jamie Ritchie went off to have a head injury assessment and was replaced by Hamish Watson, who then had to go off for treatment himself, which meant they had to throw their spare hooker Fraser Brown on. And though Richie eventually returned, they then lost both Tommy Seymour and Blair Kinghorn too.
It felt as if the team doctor James Robson, trotting on and off the pitch, made more metres than any other Scots in that first period. There were moments, fleeting glimpses, of what the Scots could do, a dazzling little break by Darcy Graham, wriggling through tackles like a fish trying to find its way back to the water, but they did not add up to much. And there was certainly no hint of just how well they were going to play in the second half, when they started playing a kind of fast, freewheeling, nothing-to-lose rugby that left the Welsh barely clinging on. The control they had had in that first half was all gone.
Finn Russell was in the thick of it, of course. Russell is a wildly mercurial fly-half: in one moment he missed touch with a penalty kick to the corner, then, seconds later, found it with a wild pass that flew straight out of play. But that unpredictable streak means he sometimes does things no other player could. Such as the astonishing inside pass to Byron McGuigan midway through the half, a real piece of hocus-pocus play, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it conjuring trick in which he took the ball then immediately flicked it back the other way against the grain of play, as if it were red-hot and his only instinct was to get rid of it.
McGuigan slipped the ball on to Adam Hastings and he moved it to Graham, who finished the score off. It was a great try but that was as good as it got for the Scots. Graham had to go off soon afterwards, which meant Scotland had lost all of their back three during the course of the match. They had already had a hooker in the back row, now they had a scrum-half on the wing, which might have been a bit too chaotic, even for Gregor Townsend’s taste.
It was the coaches’ fault, Gatland suggested, for not being tougher on the players. Shaun Edwards, though, will have to take a lot of credit for his team’s defensive effort in the second half, when they made 120 tackles. “Every team that wins a grand slam looks back on games and you’ll know you had a little bit of luck,” Gatland said. “Just think about Ireland last year and Johnny Sexton’s drop goal against France.”
Wales have not won that grand slam yet and they will need to be better than they were in the second half here if they are going to beat Ireland next week but still Gatland clearly feels his team just caught their lucky break.