Rugby Union: Hastings a hit as Welsh wilt: Five Nations' Championship

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The Independent Online
Scotland. . 20 Wales. . . . 0

THE WELSH had grown so used to plumbing the depths that when they finally scaled the heights - which was how a 10-9 victory over England was portrayed in the Principality - they suffered an attack of vertigo. Imagine if it had been 9-10 . . .

It was as if in beating Will Carling's triple Grand Slam aspirants Wales had used up every vestige of their emotional energy. Put in the Murrayfield rather than Arms Park context, they lost and were lost, bereft of direction or attacking intuition but bereft mainly of the ball.

So the Scots will go on to Twickenham on Saturday week with a Triple Crown in prospect. Two wins from three matches represent a staggeringly good record from a season that threatened the worst as recently as their trial match at the beginning of January.

And if they can surmount the psychological obstacle of playing away, which Wales on Saturday so notably failed to do, they will cause England every bit as much discomfiture as Wales did because they have a settled pattern - based more these days on maul than ruck - into which players new and old fit with great facility.

As Scotland are clearly much better than Wales, and England nowhere near as bad as their Cardiff defeat might have indicated, the prospect for Twickenham is ravishing. Geoff Cooke, the England manager, is still wondering why his team too are not Triple Crown contenders. He insisted after Saturday's game that Wales had played much the same as they had against England, but this time without getting away with it.

Indeed, for Wales the bitter truth is that in losing by 20 points they were let off lightly. 'It's a minor setback,' their captain, Ieuan Evans, said - but when you remember that on their last visit, in 1991, Wales also lost by 20 points (32-12) you have to wonder.

All right, in those desperate days Wales would have capitulated before the pressure Scotland exerted two years on. Instead, by a mixture of outstanding courage, durability and occasional fortune the defensive red line conceded only one, ultra-prosaic try and Wales might conceivably have escaped defeat if Gavin Hastings had been as imprecise in his place-kicking as he had been against France.

No such luck, and you could hardly say they deserved it so bereft were Wales of ideas about how they would use those few opportunities that came their way. The two penalty chances Neil Jenkins missed were the only times they threatened to score; they were never remotely close to a try.

Throughout the first half and into the second the majestic Hastings exploited every penalty opportunity that came his way, so that by the time he started to miss Wales were beyond redemption. Not that they had ever been in real contention. Scotland mopped up the line-outs and every marginal piece of loose possession, and consistently moved the ball with more pace and precision than ever Wales managed.

From the wreckage, there was a steadily improving contribution by Gareth Llewellyn, though it was not until the second half - in other words, too late - that he and his thrower-in, Nigel Meek, operated in harmony. For all of the first half, Meek had had trouble hitting his targets and Scotland persistently pinched Welsh line-out ball.

There was also disharmony in the Welsh forwards' delivery to the half-backs, disharmony between the half-backs, and in general no co-ordination or appreciation of how best to play rugby on the retreat. Eventually, the most telling statistic of all loomed like an accusation on the television monitor: Gary Armstrong had received twice as much possession as Robert Jones.

Throw in the capricious wind and Welsh misery was complete. Having elected to play into it in the first half, they found it swirling so much that, where Neil Jenkins was making barely five yards with his first-half touch-finders, after the interval Armstrong, Chalmers and Gavin Hastings had no apparent difficulty in making 70 a time.

Hastings finished with five penalties, the try coming from a combination of Iain Morrison and Derek Turnbull, with the latter receiving the official credit after Damian Cronin had won a short- range line-out. The strange spectacle of Joel Dume sorting everyone out before awarding the try made it none the less valid.

Hastings and Ian McGeechan suggested that the performance was one of the best of either of their careers. If that, given the paucity of the Welsh challenge, was debatable, what is not is that the continuing maximisation of scant resources by McGeechan has been one of rugby's greatest personal triumphs.

'To be able to do that, with so many new players, to a good international side was very gratifying,' the coach said. Not withstanding his generous description of the Welsh, McGeechan's fashioning of another new team - to take one example, turning the likes of Andy Reed from Bath irregular into a Test-class lock - merits all the praise heaped on him before and after Saturday's match.

McGeechan's retirement once he has taken the Lions to New Zealand in the summer, may after all last no more than a sabbatical season, meaning he could be back in time to guide Scotland to the next World Cup. Without denigrating anything his co-coaches are doing, the formidable intellectual capacity he brings to preparing his own side and analysing their opponents is practically indispensable.

The Welsh players feel something similar about their own coach, Alan Davies, reciprocating a loyalty to them that in some instances may now have been broken by the comprehensiveness of the defeat. This team may have the measure of the hapless Irish next time out, but to imagine they could go on to win in Paris is to strain credulity.

'We came here with a fairly high level of confidence and basically they shattered it,' Evans said. The beating of England having so rudely been consigned to history, Robert Norster, the manager, conceded that in fact Welsh progress had so far gone no further than a 'half-way house'. Saturday at Murrayfield had been a welcome reminder that, however pleasurable, victory over England is not the be-all and end- all - a realisation McGeechan came to a long time ago.

Scotland: Try Turnbull; Penalties G Hastings 5.

SCOTLAND: G Hastings (Watsonians, capt); A Stanger (Hawick), S Hastings (Watsonians), G Shiel (Melrose), D Stark (Boroughmuir); C Chalmers (Melrose), G Armstrong (Jed-Forest); P Wright (Boroughmuir), K Milne (Heriot's FP), P Burnell (London Scottish), D Cronin (London Scottish), A Reed (Bath), D Turnbull (Hawick), G Weir (Melrose), I Morrison (London Scottish).

WALES: M Rayer (Cardiff); I Evans (Llanelli, capt), M Hall (Cardiff), S Gibbs (Swansea), W Proctor (Llanelli); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Jones (Swansea); R Evans (Llanelli), N Meek (Pontypool), H Williams-Jones (South Wales Police), Gareth Llewellyn (Neath), A Copsey (Llanelli), E Lewis (Llanelli), S Davies (Swansea), R Webster (Swansea).

Referee: J Dume (France).

(Photograph omitted)