A second-half try from Jonathan Davies and brave defence helped Wales to a 26-23 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield.
Hammered, humbled and humiliated, Scotland trudged off the Millenium Stadium paddock a year ago reeling from a red card, a record thrashing, ravaged by the Welsh dragon and nursing gaping wounds that remain palpably raw eleven months on.
On this crisp but sunny Sunday afternoon, they retreated to the Murrayfield dressing rooms on the final whistle, one would imagine, hurting every ounce as much. The margin of defeat was far slimmer, but its manifestation was just as maddening.
Vern Cotter’s side shipped penalties and possession, spurned opportunities that simply had to be grasped in a criminal display of profligacy, and kicked poorly from hand against a Wales side streetwise enough to take advantage.
For Scottish supporters, it was all very familiar.
The game lived up to its billing by most as ‘too close to call’, Greig Laidlaw and Leigh Halfpenny trading shots at goal, before Jon Davies struck the killer blow for the visitors with a try under the posts that assured Wales a two-score lead for the final fifteen minutes.
The pre-match statistics, as usual in this day and age, did not favour the Scots. They had not beaten Wales in their last seven attempts, and had scored a solitary try in their previous three.
A lack of discipline, particularly around the breakdown blighted their Parisian performance and hindered their capacity to retain possession. They leaked three penalties in the opening five minutes – all at the ruck – on their way to a final, remarkable tally of seventeen as Wales started with energy, and Blair Cowan’s failure to roll away in his own 22 presented Halfpenny with a simple opportunity to open the scoring.
Defensively, Scotland continued where they left off in the Stade de France, however, cutting the powerful red runners down around their ankles, and crucially, behind the gain-line.
Alex Cuthbert was one such runner, isolated and chopped down by namesake Dunbar, allowing the Scots’ golden boy, Finn Russell, to pinch possession and feed Richie Gray, who found Stuart Hogg on the blindside with fifty yards of unguarded hybrid turf between him and the line – Richard Hibbard chased bravely, but the hooker had no chance of laying hands on his Lions teammate.
Laidlaw knocked over the conversion from straight in front, and Scotland should have been in again as Dunbar scythed through the Welsh midfield after a lovely delayed pass from Russell, only to see what looked a scoring pass tipped away by the covering Liam Williams.
That passage of play would yield three simple points for the skipper, before try-scorer Hogg saved the day at the other end with a magnificent tackle on Rhys Webb.
The scrum-half looked set to touch down after a brilliant Halfpenny take – Russell and Laidlaw both having lunged for a high ball with near-catastrophic consequences.
His kicker was soon removing scrum-cap and lining up another shot in the shadow of the Scottish posts, however, cutting the gap to four as the penalty count continued to rise.
Indeed, though Scotland’s rear-guard action was exemplary, it should not have been required, self-inflicted as it was through a spree of needless infringements.
Their sixth and seventh respective transgressions at the contact area heaped on the pressure, Wales opting for the corner, but fine maul defence twice thwarting them.
There were shades of 2009 and Geoff Cross’ debut sin-binning in this fixture as Russell inadvertently clattered the soaring Dan Biggar, turning his back to avoid a faceful of studs, but drawing a mandatory yellow card from Glen Jackson.
And the extra man was swiftly made to count as Cowan spilled possession in the Welsh 22, and Halfpenny instigated a flowing move featuring Jamie Roberts – a questionable looping pass – Davies and Williams, who drew Hogg and sent Webb scampering over in the corner.
Halfpenny converted, but Wales’ numerical was soon harshly negated, as the chasing Davies collided with Johnnie Beattie in the air, aided by a shove in the back from Sean Lamont – a contest between two airborne players that warranted no sanction.
Scotland responded with a stirring onslaught on the Welsh line, beginning with a twenty-five metre maul for the Welsh, stopped at the corner flag, but unforgivably ending pointless, the visitors creaking but rallying to retain a six-point lead at the break.
With Russell’s return, the Scots squandered more field position with an overthrown lineout on the Welsh 22, but excellent work from Dunbar at the breakdown earned a penalty in midfield and another three points for Laidlaw.
With concussed Samson Lee’s absence, Aaron Jarvis was enduring the challenging shift on the tighthead side many anticipated, but Al Dickinson dropping his bind allowed Halfpenny to restore the visitors’ lead off the post – Wales now restored to fifteen men.
Laidlaw slotted his third penalty from distance, but the visitors amped up the pressure anew, Roberts punching the Scottish midfield and driving the Welsh forward.
Williams was a denied a score in the corner when Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball obstructed Rob Harley from a maul breakaway, and though Scotland leaked yet another breakdown penalty, Halfpenny pulled his effort wide.
The hosts could only live dangerously for so long. Game-breaker Davies struck the killer blow cutting a lovely line off Biggar, beating Matt Scott and dummying Hogg to stride between the posts, his full-back converting for a ten-point lead.
Scotland again laid siege to the Welsh line, but errors at vital times, and a brilliant turnover from Sam Warburton held them at bay until it was too late to snatch victory.
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne almost capped his Murrayfield debut off the bench with a try after a sixty-metre move from a stolen lineout, and Jon Welsh eventually lumbered over the line with the last play of the match.
Russell converted, but with apparently ten seconds remaining, Jackson called time, sending two-thirds of Murrayfield home nursing an accustomed sense of frustration, and the Scarlet hordes who biennially invade Edinburgh off into the local hostelries with their Championship back on-track.
Man of the match: Alex Dunbar was excellent for Scotland, but Jamie Roberts gets the nod for me for nine bruising carries that sapped the hosts’ energy.
Moment of the match: Scotland had time for a comeback after Davies’ try, but Sam Warburton’s penalty-winning turnover under his own posts ten minutes from time ensured Wales a safe passage to victory.
Villain of the match: Yellow cards aside, neither of which were the result of any malice, nothing nasty to report.
Tries: Hogg, Welsh
Cons: Russell 2
Pens: Russell 3
Yellow Card: Russell
Tries: Webb, Davies
Cons: Halfpenny 2
Pens: Halfpenny 4
Yellow Card: Davies
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Lamont, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Jon Welsh, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Alasdair Strokosch, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Greig Tonks, 23 Matt Scott
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Aaron Jarvis, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Paul James, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Scott Williams.
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees: George Clancy, Dudley Phillips
TMO: Simon McDowell