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FEATURE Unlikely Welsh resurgence offers hope for trek to Twickenham

Unlikely Welsh resurgence offers hope for trek to Twickenham
4 months ago

The pre-match routine followed the codes and conventions cultivated by 140 years of rivalry in this storied tournament. The streets around the Principality Stadium pulsated with fans indulging themselves with plentiful libation and as they trundled into the stadium, they were met by the mellifluous sounds of Sosban Fach and Calon Lan rising up into the Cardiff sky.

So far, so familiar. However when the whistle went so much of what was familiar within Welsh rugby dissipated. In a month in which Welsh rugby has lost players so deified they were known by one name or initials, Barry John and JPR, the next golden generation were also conspicuous by their absence – gone was the reassuring sight of Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny or Justin Tipuric and one of Wales’ few remaining comfort blankets, George North, was also reacquainted with the treatment table.

In came a clutch of kids barely out of full-time education. Cameron Winnett had just left his teens, Dafydd Jenkins was captaining his country at an age you’re first allowed an alcoholic drink in the United States, while Mason Grady entered the fray still months shy of the 22nd birthday.

In truth, in those first, abject 40 minutes, every Welsh weakness was exposed. Every dollop of naivety punished, and every nightmare endured by Welsh fans cashed in. The lineout was ruinous with three missing red shirts and into gleeful Scottish hands. Penalty kicks missed touch, scrums were lost and passes dropped. The lack of ambition was exemplified by Sam Costelow’s directives to loft the ball in the air like a quarterback, due to a lack of carrying threat, something he did on nine occasions, with one successful regather. When Wales did truck it up, they were sent backwards tae think again – with James Botham sent metres backwards onto his rump by resolute Scottish defenders. Their discipline was also found wanting, with Gatland furious at Josh Adams’ ‘dumb’ decision to throw the ball away and give away a penalty. Nick Tompkins’ fumble on the half-time whistle summed up Wales’ ineptitude.

Wales
At full-time, Wales were left to ponder what might have been after a stirring second-half performance (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Indeed, while a ‘fully-loaded’ Scotland purred, Warren Gatland said it was his worst half in coaching. “Really disappointed with that first-half. We just weren’t accurate. We had no tempo in our game. Gave away some soft penalties.” Ouch. It was a damning indictment when you consider he coached Galwegians back in 1989, some 35 years ago.

Wales were 20-0 down as they trudged down the tunnel, and wagers were being exchanged about record home defeats by Wales. After 42 minutes, it got worse. With the crowd still taking their seats, Finn Russell, so composed in the first-half, ghosted past two Welsh defenders and offloaded sumptuously to Duhan van der Merwe, who pinned his ears back to outpace Tomos Williams on the outside.

Scotland were 27 points to the good and Wales were humiliated and firmly in damage limitation territory.

The likes of Aaron Wainwright, Dafydd Jenkins and Corey Domachowski started punching holes, and with the introduction of debutant Alex Mann, the previously underpowered Welsh carriers instead found green space instead of tacklers.

The catalyst to Wales’ unlikely comeback was Williams. He took that losing footrace against Van der Merwe personally, and his varied game started to unnerve the hitherto unflustered Scots. A deft nudge behind their defence forced them to turn. Speed of ball from the base of rucks added an urgency that was lacking and slowly Wales started to turn from doubters into believers.

Winnett found an extra yard or two on his kicks, Ioan Lloyd, on for Costelow, who had failed an HIA, started mixing up his kicking game and using his footwork to outwit flailing Scottish arms, and Wales’ forwards started finding space. Tommy ‘Turnover’ Reffell was also proving a painful thorn in Scottish posteriors, pilfering the ball. As pressure mounted, sin-bins for George Turner and Sione Tuipulotu were a gift and the crowd, so subdued in the first half, found their voice. With adrenalin coursing through their veins, the likes of Aaron Wainwright, Dafydd Jenkins and Corey Domachowski started punching holes, and with the introduction of debutant, Alex Mann, the previously underpowered Welsh carriers instead found green space instead of tacklers.

Ioan Lloyd
Ioan Lloyd asked questions of the Scottish defence in a promising cameo (Photo by Ian Cook/Getty Images)

Botham started the comeback, with a burrow from close range, and minutes later it was Rio Dyer – who was increasingly bamboozling Scottish defenders with his mazy runs – taking a pass from a looping Williams, who dived over in the corner. At 27-12, an unlikely renaissance gathered pace. With Scotland’s discipline erring, however, Aaron Wainwright was the next Welsh ball-carrier to straighten up and power under the posts after a wave of Welsh phases.

At 27-19, the Principality Stadium was rubbing its eyes in disbelief. Surely they couldn’t do it, could they? Yet Scotland still couldn’t stymie Welsh momentum, with barely any front-foot ball from minute 43 to minute 71. When Winnett, the game’s top carrier with 125m, found space on the blindside, from the resulting maul, a spritely Alex Mann exploded out and powered over the line unopposed. Ioan Lloyd drilled a handy conversion over to peg the score back to 27-26 and a record comeback seemed entirely plausible.

When Ben O’Keeffe blew for the final whistle, the crowd, rather than cheering, looked around, unable to process what had occurred in the previous 80 minutes.

With ashen-faced Scots in the crowd, it was then that Townsend’s men finally regained their composure to close the game out. Afterwards Warren Gatland bemoaned Wales’ poor decision making, notably their inability to regather the ball at the lineout and despite a claim of a high tackle from Cameron Redpath which could have led to a shot at goal, it was Scotland who finished strongest, with only the calf of Rio Dyer stopping a late, late try from Van der Merwe.

When Ben O’Keeffe blew for the final whistle, the crowd, rather than cheering, looked around, unable to process what had occurred in the previous 80 minutes. A pyrrhic victory for Scotland, who barely raised smiles when lifting the Doddie Weir Cup. A shaken Gregor Townsend admitted he saw the ghosts of 2010, and a tale of what might have been for Warren Gatland, who bemoaned Wales’ tepid first-half.

Wales
Corey Domachowski celebrates after James Botham scores the first of four Welsh tries in the second half (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

France at Murrayfield beckons for Townsend’s Scotland side, while Gatland set a bullish tone with his young squad ‘undaunted’ by the trip to Twickenham. Jenkins was also pleased, okay relieved,  with the heart shown by a callow Welsh side. Indeed, you had to feel for the 21-year-old after that first 40, .

Wales know they will have to use wit and guile to outfox England, they no longer have the behemoths to bully sides, though the return of North and Will Rowlands would be timely. A week of soul-searching beckons, with Wales, two bonus points secured, arguably the happier after a modern-day classic.

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