A Finn Russell-inspired Scotland enjoyed a memorable afternoon at BT Murrayfield as they defeated Wales 35-7 to make it two wins from two for the first time in the Six Nations era.
Russell set up three of his side’s five tries, Kyle Steyn crossing twice alongside George Turner, Blair Kinghorn and Matt Fagerson, to leave Scotland dreaming of a Championship challenge ahead of their trip to Paris in a fortnight.
The visitors were in the game at half time thanks to Ken Owens’ try but were blown away after the break, leaving Warren Gatland on the losing side for the first time against Scotland as Wales coach.
Scotland now made of sterner stuff
When George Turner was sent to the sin-bin on 32 minutes and Owens immediately took advantage to reduce the deficit, there would have been plenty around BT Murrayfield fearing the worst.
They had good reason to. Memories of costly Scotland cards against Wales are fresh and the hosts were fortunate not to be punished further, Rio Dyer spilling when well placed to finish a try which, if converted, would have seen Gatland’s side reach the interval in front.
Previous Scotland sides may have wilted under the pressure but the Class of ’23 appear to be made of sterner stuff. Where once beating England might have been seen as the Holy Grail, this squad spent the week insisting it meant nothing if they were unable to back it up in Round 2 – which has been the story of recent years.
“I’m glad we backed up a good performance, we have been questioned on that before,” said captain Jamie Ritchie.
“That was our main theme throughout the week, we wanted consistency and I’ll keep hammering home that a successful competition is five good performances.
“That’s two ticked off. We improved on last week, now we want to improve again.”
Experience proves key in forward battle
Ritchie delivered one of many eye-catching displays among the Scotland forwards, who had too much for a new-look Wales pack that had five personnel changes from Round 1.
The Fagerson brothers put in 37 tackles between them, Matt (20) just edging out Zander (17), while Richie Gray continued his remarkable form since returning to the international arena and Pierre Schoeman was everywhere during his 65 minutes on the field.
Turner’s yellow card was the only blot on his copybook on an otherwise impressive afternoon which turned into a long one for those wearing red.
“We put them under pressure and when a team is under pressure, discipline tends to slip,” Ritchie said.
“We knew they wanted to turn it into a messy game, that’s what you saw last year down there. We knew if we stayed out of that and played our game, we would create opportunities.
Gatland faces defining selection dilemmas
“People call for changes, then you make them, then there is talk about players left out. Sometimes it’s lose-lose.”
Warren Gatland was prepared for the questions about his big selection calls, which saw him leave out experienced trio Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau, the latter appearing from the bench.
It may not have reaped instant rewards but this could be a case of short-term pain leading to long-term gain.
Gatland had reassuring words for young Exeter Chiefs duo Dafydd Jenkins and Christ Tshiunza, who made 50 metres from his eight carries, while 23-year-old Tommy Reffell was his side’s leading tackler.
International rugby is a tough school and Wales’ youngsters will have learned plenty in Edinburgh, which may yet stand them in good stead down the line.
Gatland went on to allude to the ‘tough calls’ which lie ahead and he must now decide whether to place his trust in youth or experience.
Russell the star but Scotland have depth
Gregor Townsend has a contrasting set of selection dilemmas, with his squad containing a depth not seen in a generation.
Finn Russell was named Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match after his latest virtuoso display and the fly-half remains a joy to watch in this mood.
But Ritchie was quick to point out that Russell is only as good as both the service he is given and the players around him, who are now gleefully snapping up the opportunities provided by their maverick no.10.
Blair Kinghorn sported that jersey for a spell in the autumn and his full-back performance off the bench was further evidence as to the strength which now sits among Scotland’s replacements.
In years gone by, losing Stuart Hogg so early could have caused real disruption but Kinghorn ensured a seamless transition, hitting three figures for metres made and capping his performance with the try which secured the hosts a bonus point.
“Blair came on early and was outstanding,” Townsend said. “We also have a number of players who have trained really well and not made the 23.
“Our training sessions have gone up in quality. Players will have to play really well to get in and stay in the team.”
Cutting edge the difference
Scotland certainly know how to make opportunities count. Having recorded 4.1 points per visit to England’s 22 in Round 1, they just about matched it here, only losing the .1 from that tally.
The fact Wales’ points per 22 visit sat at 0.5 was instructive as to where this game was won and lost.
Wales regularly scuppered promising set-piece opportunities, particularly in the first half, while Dyer and Rhys Carre were guilty of knocking on when the try line beckoned.
The words ‘clinical’ and ‘ruthless’ were used countless times by Gatland and Owens in the aftermath, leaving no doubt that sharpening the attack is an area Wales will be working hard on as they prepare to welcome England in Round 3.
Scotland currently have no such trouble in that department but know they will have to continue the theme if they are to enjoy success in Paris, where opportunities deep in French territory may be hard to come by.