The Six Nations kicked off with an entertaining game in Cardiff as Wales beat Scotland 34-7 – we analyse whether the northern hemisphere is now replicating the south
Wales 34-7 Scotland
Northern hemisphere rugby is oft-maligned for being stodgy, forward-orientated and unambitious, yet for those who witnessed the Wales 34-7 Scotland Six Nations game in Cardiff it was anything but.
In fact, the level of ambition was such that it could be likened to the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby or even the Rugby Championship. Those competitions are renowned for attacking flair, end-to-end encounters and high try counts – and the Wales and Scotland teams did their utmost to fulfil that criteria at the Principality Stadium, albeit that the hosts were far more successful than the visitors. Scotland may be known as a team of skills and thrills, but it was Wales who turned on the style and, perhaps more importantly, shut down their opponents while the boys in blue fell significantly short defensively, which is a common criticism of Super Rugby too!
The Scots started at a fast pace, setting out their stall in Wales’ half and looking for chinks in the red wall. Jonny Gray found one within two minutes, taking the ball on the 10m line and striding past Rhys Patchell with purpose only to be penalised at the subsequent breakdown.
The Welsh forwards weren’t to be outshone, though. Man of the Match Aaron Shingler made a burst up the middle before Cory Hill and Alun Wyn Jones took the ball on – the Wales skipper proving that you can teach an old(ish) dog new tricks. Rob Evans showed his usual deft touches while Samson Lee palmed a brilliant ball to Ross Moriarty after half an hour and Elliot Dee’s back-handed pop allowed Gareth Davies to break into Scotland’s 22 midway through the second half.
These are the sort of ball skills we’re more used to seeing from forwards bedecked in all black, but here they were from two home unions sides wearing red and blue.
Both fly-halves, Patchell and Finn Russell, relish playing flat to the gain-line and they did so here, keeping those without the ball guessing as to what they would do with it. Sometimes it would be a pop pass, at others it would be a long one out wide; there was a loop move here, a probing kick there. Variety is what every team needs or the opposition can predict all too easily what is about to come next.
And the two tens were not afraid to launch attacks from their own 22s either – the conservative approach seemingly shelved. The head may not have been changing direction as often as when watching a tennis match but there were several periods when play flowed from one end of the field to the other, the attacking intent from both sides capable of causing a crick in the neck.
This sense of purpose with ball in hand was admirable – yet ambition needs to be matched with execution and the flaw in this Test was neither team could be as accurate as the All Blacks. This is where Scotland especially disappointed as again they failed to deliver on the promise and hype leading into this game. The intent was there but the skills simply weren’t executed accurately.
Russell and Ali Price are well known for the tempo they bring but it was actually a delay from the scrum-half that allowed his opposite number, Gareth Davies, to pounce on a pass and sprint clear for an interception try. On other occasions they lost their shape and looked muddled in midfield with the new centre pairing of Huw Jones and Chris Harris. Balls were spilled and carriers penalised for holding on after finding themselves isolated.
Credit here must go to Wales defence. The Scarlets pair of Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams were rock-solid in midfield, firmly holding up the ‘stop’ sign to anyone who headed down their channel. The selection of Josh Navidi at openside may have been questioned by some but his graft at the contact area resulted in turnovers – a facet Scotland were expected to dominate with both Hamish Watson and John Barclay in the back row.
Wales found a verve with ball in hand to better that of Scotland, who simply couldn’t get their attacking game to click in order to penetrate the Welsh defence until the closing minutes. Leigh Halfpenny crossed for two tries – his first in a Wales shirt for five years – while Steff Evans wrapped up the bonus point by finishing off a move that involved Shingler and Navidi. That demonstrates just how clinical this Welsh performance was.
So is the Six Nations the new Super Rugby? Well, the desire to keep ball in hand and run from their own half was certainly reminiscent of southern hemisphere teams, albeit that more breaks would result in tries Down Under. Yet the rigid defence (from Wales at least) and ability to change tack with a kick also showed more diversity in tactics than Super Rugby can be known for.
There was style and substance on display in Cardiff – will the other four teams deliver the same as the championship continues? And what awaits when Wales visit Twickenham next Saturday?
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Wales – Tries: G Davies, Halfpenny 2, S Evans. Cons: Halfpenny 4. Pens: Halfpenny 2.
Scotland – Try: Horne. Con: Russell.