Wales suffered their first defeat in a decade to a vibrant Scotland, to leave Rob Howley's men with their backs against the wall for the remaining two games
Wales are struggling to ‘handle’ change
Wales’ 29-13 defeat, to yet another irrestistible performance from Scotland, proved that despite a clear intent to move on from Warren Gatland’s attritional game plan, they are a long way from executing it. Despite impressive breakdown work from Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton, a Lion’s performance from Rhys Webb and yet another near effective offensive performance from Liam Williams (he was uncharacteristically caught out of position for Scotland’s first try), Wales looked uncomfortable handling the ball in pressurised scenarios. Jon Davies’ ‘drop and pop’ to Rhys Webb in the 48th minute being a classic example.
Having dropped to the ground following a tackle and managed to roll onto his back, Davies needed to ‘pop’ up the ball to chest/ waist height for the supporting Webb to gather for a certain try. Instead the ball looked like it had been strapped to an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile and nullified what had been a classic Jon Davies line-break. Wales turned over the ball over 17 times in total, some of which was down to rugged breakdown work from John Barclay et al, but most of which came from poor handling in high traffic areas. Wales are emerging from an era where the rugby ball and the ability to handle it quickly were secondary to size and fitness. They must adapt quickly. It is no longer the case that Wales need to improve their offensive skill sets to compete with the world’s top 4. As Scotland are proving, EVERYONE has moved on.
Was George North really fully-fit?
George North touched the ball three times in 80 minutes against Scotland – a number which seems almost inconceivable for a test wing. Most wings touch the ball at least three to four times per game from kick returns alone. By pulling out a foldable camping chair and sitting on the halfway line you’d probably touch the ball three times as the play merely passed by you. A number made all the more bizarre when you consider that Liam Williams touched the ball 16 times on the other wing.
It may be that North simply had a bad day, players do, but far more likely that he hadn’t recovered from the injury which saw him sit out the England game. North clearly wasn’t ready to play – a statement further evidenced by the fact that he only made three tackles and more alarmingly missed just as many. It’s not as though Wales didn’t have options, they did, his selection was as poorly conceived as Moriarty’s early yank against England.
Liam Williams is wasted on the wing
The Welsh coaches may view Liam Williams as a “wing who can play full-back”, but many see him as a modern fullback, who should be playing fullback. Williams was yet again near flawless in his offensive execution against Scotland. Williams is as comfortable giving unorthodox passes as he is receiving them and is adept at picking less than obvious lines – a rarity in Welsh backline play over recent years.
As we have seen repeatedly in this year’s Six Nations it is in the outside/wing channel, where fullbacks cause the most confusion. Their late ‘running lines’ regularly cause the defensive players to ‘number up’ incorrectly, a situation which Williams’ was himself undone by for Tommy Seymour’s try. Wales have already made positive tweaks in their centre selections, if they are truly committed to changing the way they play, then they require one more.
Scotland are playing beautiful rugby
This column is supposed to view the Scotland v Wales fixture from the viewpoint of the Welsh, but how can one not be charmed by the Scottish performance? As with all their performances in this year’s Six Nations, it is rugby as we all wish it to be played. An artistic backline adding colour to what can be a very monochrome game at test level. A backline littered with players who are comfortable handling the ball at speed has created the best counter attacking threat in the championship and an ability to finish tries that Wales currently doesn’t have.
But it isn’t just their counter attack which makes them so effective, with a backline built around Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg even their structured play is refreshingly unstructured. A facet that northern hemisphere rugby’s often binary attitude to attacking play is currently struggling to defend- just ask Wales and Ireland. Scotland’s wonderfully laissez-faire approach to back-play may indeed be born out of an inability to dominate teams upfront. Despite having two excellent locks in the Gray brothers and a dogged set of backrow forwards, Scotland’s set piece can be unpredictable, but then so is their backline – and that is the beauty. Well played Scotland.
Crossing shouldn’t be a penalty
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Rugby may already have a law book that is as difficult to comprehend as Donald Trump’s administration, but it does require one further tweak. ‘Crossing’ should result in a scrum, not a penalty. The perfect example occurred during the 49th minute when Scotland tried to exit their 22-metre line by running the ball.
Having won their own feed at the scrum, Scotland used the narrow channel to feed Tommy Seymour into space, who then stepped infield and rather innocuously ‘crossed’ in front of Ryan Wilson. The result was a penalty to Wales and an opportunity to kick to touch. It was in this, and all instances, an overly severe punishment for the attacking team. ‘Crossing’ isn’t an act of foul play and shouldn’t be treated as such. Crossing should fall into the same bracket as a knock-on, where losing possession and a resulting scrum is punishment enough. Someone please change it.