Round 2 of the 2021 Six nations saw a match-up between the 2 countries still able to win the Triple Crown, as Scotland hosted Wales at Murrayfield. After an impressive 2020 and an historic Calcutta Cup win at Twickenham last week, Scotland came in as the favourites and after both Leigh Halfpenny and Finn Russell kicked early penalties, Scotland got the early try as Darcy Graham reacted quickest to Ali Price’s clever chip from the back of a ruck to go in untouched under the posts, giving Russell an easy conversion. The Scots soon extended their lead as they spread the ball wide to the right on first phase ball. Stuart Hogg waited for the defence to commit to him before chipping in behind, and Leigh Halfpenny on the turn could not control the ball as he went to ground, allowing Hogg to dive on the loose ball and slide over in the corner, Russell again nailing the kick. Wales were coming into the game with an extensive injury list and desperately needed the next score, and they got it just before half time as they spread the ball wide following a 5m lineout, getting the ball to Louis Rees-Zammit, who stepped inside Graham and went over for the try. With Leigh Halfpenny off following a failed HIA, Dan Biggar was unable to land the kick from wide right and he half ended 17-8.
Scotland were in the ascendency soon after the break, and thought they had scored through Gary Graham after turning down a kick at goal for a 5m tap-and-go penalty, however the try was ruled out due to Scott Cummings running a blocking line right in front of him. This loss of points was exacerbated as a couple of penalties saw Wales deep in the Scottish half just seconds later, and after a catch and drive went 20 metres to deep in the 22, Rees-Zammit came on the loop as the ball was spread left to hit a gap in the Scottish defence out wide and timed his pass perfectly to send Liam Williams over, with replacement fly half Callum Sheedy converting. Things got even worse for the Scots just minutes later, as Zander Fagerson was given a red card for a cleanout to the head of Wyn Jones, very similar to the Peer O’Mahony dismissal last week. From the resulting penalty, Wales kicked to touch and after another big driving maul brought them to the Scottish line, they went through the phases before Wyn Jones forced his way over for the go-ahead try, with Sheedy missing the conversion. The Scots recovered and got some momentum back, eventually earning a penalty between the posts 5m out from the Wales line. Again, they turned down the easy 3 points and went for the scrum – having replaced Darcy Graham with WP Nel to keep a full 8-man pack – and after a couple of resets, the ball was spread to the right and Hogg fended off the challenge of Owen Watkin to go over for the try, with Russell converting. The game really opened up in the final 15 minutes and a Callum Sheedy grubber to the corner flag saw Stuart Hogg just beet Rees-Zammit to the ball to dot down for a 22 drop-out, however just a minute later Rees Lightning got his chance to shine again as he chipped over Stuart Hogg and won the footrace to score the bonus point try. The Scots didn’t give up even with the clock in the red, and created one final chance as Finn Russell forced an offload out the back of his hand under pressure from multiple tacklers to release Duhan van der Merwe down the right wing. The powerhouse wing was flying but a last-ditch tap tackle from Owen Watkin brought him down, and Liam Williams just got a finger to the offload ahead of Stuart Hogg, allowing the Welsh to recover the ball and put it into touch to secure a 24-25 victory.
Scotland have never won a Six Nations Championship (their last tournament victory was in the final season before Italy joined) and it has been a long time since they have looked this strong. However, as a result of this, they are now finding themselves in positions that they are not used to, being able to overcome a numerical disadvantage and have a legitimate chance to still win a game at the death.
In games like this, there will always be one or 2 moments where a player’s decision will win or lose a team the match. Unfortunately, that moment belonged to Ali Price in this game, as with just minutes left on the clock and with Scotland going through the phases just inside the Welsh half, he put in an aimless kick with nobody chasing, that Louis Rees-Zammit was not only able to take his time to recover, but also then smashed back downfield to deep in the Scottish half. Of course, he almost got saved by his team with the break at the death, but in any games, that aimless kick would have been game over.
There are very few Scotland players who have been in those high-stakes moments in big games over the last couple of seasons, and they will learn from this heartbreak. They have a week off now before facing France, which now becomes a must-win game if they want to win the tournament. I don’t see them pulling off a win in Paris this year, but as long as the team learn from this weekend, then it will be a benefit in the long run.
Wayne Pivac made a big call with less than 10 minutes gone in the second half, taking off both his halfbacks in Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. That was 148 caps coming off the pitch, with their replacements Kieran Hardy and Callum Sheedy combining for just 9 caps (including the 2 they were coming on to earn).
Such a big call could have ruined the team, when you consider that they already had a centre on the wing and an inexperienced centre pairing, but it worked to perfection here as it changed Wales’ attack to a more possession-based game rather than a territorial fight. By keeping hold of possession, Wales were able to start finding the gaps in the Scottish defence as Sheedy moved his backs around – something we see all the time when he plays for Bristol – and this forced the Scots to give away a number of penalties.
It’s no surprise that the Scots only gave away a handful of penalties against an England team that were afraid to play attacking rugby, but faced with a team looking to take the game to them, the penalties returned, while Fagerson’s red card merely added to the gaps for Wales to exploit.
Will Sheedy and Hardy et the star in 2 weeks? It’s unlikely, as Wayne Pivac should have a number of players return from injury, but watching back the highlights from the Italy game will show that England were not as comfortable as you would expect against an expansive attacking game, so don’t be surprised to see Sheedy making an early appearance off the bench if the game is close.
The Springbok scrum will always be a weapon, so a strong performance by Wyn Jones will have done the loosehead a number of favours, not just securing his spot in the Welsh number 1 shirt, but also pushing him into contention for the Lions’ Touring Party. Meanwhile on the wing, Louis Rees-Zammit shone with 2 tries and 1 assist to highlight his attacking quality. For Scotland, Duhan van der Merwe continued to show his unique blend of size, power and pace, while Chris Harris put in a solid performance going both ways in a position that looks up for grabs with Jonathan Davies’ limited gametime in recent years.
On the flip side, the early removal will be just what Dan Biggar didn’t want with many of his rivals for the Lions 10 jersey underperforming, while Zander Fagerson struggled in the scrum before his red card.