Six Nations 2013: Wales gather momentum for England clash

 

"Can we enjoy today first?" Rob Howley enquired rather forlornly, when the spectre of England was raised with almost unseemly haste. Fat chance.

Saturday's match with Scotland, as far some in Wales were concerned, was merely an occasion to be negotiated rather than celebrated, before the serious business of derailing England's Grand Slam bandwagon - or even wresting the title from their grasp - in Cardiff next Saturday.

Victory here at least kept that latter possibility tantalisingly alive, even if it remains a remote one.

But Howley, Wales' interim coach, was entitled to dwell a little longer on events at Murrayfield before turning his thoughts to what he labelled a "mammoth game".

Reaction: Scotland 18-28 Wales

After all, history was made on several fronts. On the positive side, Wales had just won a fifth consecutive away game for the first time in the championship.

Only England, who also won five in a row away from 2002 to 2004, and France - with six from 2003 to 2005 - have matched or bettered that feat since the Five Nations became Six.

There were also some less edifying records. The 18 penalty attempts at goal amounted to a world record, while the 13 successful penalties were the most in a Six Nations match.

On the eve of the game, the legendary Gerald Davies lamented the "unremittingly gladiatorial, pitilessly severe and oppressive" nature of this tournament since the opening weekend.

Alas, there was little to lift the spirits of the dashing Wales wing of yore after another contest where remorseless defence, particularly Wales', throttled attacking invention and physical power and a dead-eyed kicker provided the keys to victory.

But if Wales' campaign, after the last half-hour against Ireland, has hardly been an aesthete's paradise, there are other qualities to admire in the way the defending champions have revived themselves and their championship aspirations.

Wales v Scotland

It gives us a lot of momentum going into a big game next week

Rob Howley Wales interim coach

Set-piece prowess has never been synonymous with Welsh rugby, but their scrum - as it was in Rome - was again a source of sustenance, even if it made for painful viewing at times.

"It was very much a test of patience, wasn't it?" observed Wales forwards coach Robin McBryde, who praised his pack for maintaining discipline in adhering to referee Craig Joubert's instructions.

Scotland, by contrast, seemed to fall into the trap set for them - "We almost left the hit, and waited to be hit," explained Wales hooker Richard Hibbard - and were repeatedly penalised for engaging too early, much to the consternation of their front row, and the partisans in the crowd.

Scotland coach Scott Johnson, to his credit, refused to blame Joubert, even if his frustration was clear. "We have got a world-class front row, we scrummage square with no tricks, but we are getting nothing for it," he lamented.

It is only fair to point out that Scotland also won two scrum penalties that Greig Laidlaw kicked to put the hosts into a 12-10 lead just before half-time.

But their indiscipline elsewhere continued to undermine them. Scotland had conceded more penalties, 47, than any other country after the first three rounds of fixtures, and they racked up another 16 here.

To put that in context, Howley was disappointed his side had reached double figures - considered a heinous crime at the highest level - for the first time this campaign.

While one or two awards seemed questionable, in truth Scotland - despite remaining in contention on the scoreboard - never gave the impression that a third straight Championship win for the first time since 1996 was on the cards.

Wales appeared to have another gear to go to if required, they enjoyed nearly 60% of the territory and possession, and some of their best players stood tall when it mattered.

Official match stats

Scotland Wales

43%

Possession

57%

41%

Territory

59%

3 (3)

Scrums won (lost)

4 (1)

6 (0)

Line-outs won (lost)

12 (3)

16

Pens conceded

12

63

Rucks won

85

29

Possession kicked

27

98 (9)

Tackles made (missed)

102 (3)

3

Offloads

3

0

Line breaks

1

(provided by Accenture)

Howley's decision to change a winning team after Paris and Rome and re-introduce Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton to his pack paid off handsomely.

Jones was Wales' leading ball-carrier alongside Toby Faletau, a secure source of line-out possession, taking half-a-dozen throws, and also making 10 tackles in a hugely industrious display.

Warburton, meanwhile, gave a timely reminder of his class with an influential display at the breakdown that earned him the man-of-the-match award.

As well as topping the tackle count with 13, his presence over the ball forced several of the nine turnovers Wales achieved, as well as winning a couple of penalties.

"He has had a tough time over the last five weeks, so it was good to see him enjoying his rugby and proving something to those who questioned him with an outstanding performance," said Howley.

Warburton regained the captaincy for the last half-hour, after Ryan Jones was forced off with a shoulder injury. If Jones does not recover in time for the England encounter, Howley said he would have no qualms about playing Justin Tipuric and Warburton together.

Another individual who responded well to adversity was Leigh Halfpenny. After missing three first-half kicks in the face of a strong wind, he composed himself admirably to land his next seven from all angles, giving him a highly respectable eight from 11 overall in the difficult conditions.

And then there was the defence. It is getting on for five hours now since Wales' try-line was breached. Only once, when the Scottish back three of Stuart Hogg, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser combined to telling effect with five minutes left, did they look threatened here. But even with 14 men, they resisted the Scots - who have failed to score a try in their last two games.

"They can be very proud of themselves with the character they have shown over the last three games in particular," added Howley. "It gives us a lot of momentum going into a big game next week."

Ah yes, the big game. Whether the title is still a realistic goal after England's match with Italy on Sunday remains to be seen, but the Millennium Stadium will be at fever pitch regardless.

The kings of the road will be back home, even if Cardiff has provided little comfort of late with five straight defeats. But England's arrival, and the prospect of great deeds ahead, will once again stir a nation.