Rugby Union: Magic of Leslie leaves hopes in Welsh hands

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The Independent Online
SCOTLAND CONFIRMED their rating as the shock team of the final Five Nations with this amazing win which leaves their hopes of the championship title in the hands of Wales, who stand in the way of England's Grand Slam hopes at Wembley today.

If Wales do manage to win they will be handing France the wooden spoon and they deserve nothing more after their performance yesterday. It takes nothing away from the Scottish achievement to point out how badly the French performed after a dream start when a brilliant break by Thomas Castaignede led to a first-minute try.

Then Castaignede went off with an injured knee and, apart from a few flurries, that was the last we saw of France as a cohesive force. Scotland just ran at them with a great thirst for adventure and tore them to pieces. It was a fantastic team effort with outstanding individual performances. My man of the match was John Leslie, and unless there is a superhuman display by someone at Wembley he'll be my man of the tournament, too.

His contribution was truly phenomenal and he took so much pressure off Gregor Townsend and Alan Tait that they were able to be outstanding as well. No matter whether he was given good ball or rubbish he made magic out of it and the way he unloaded the ball helped the Scottish momentum.

Also prominent for Scotland was Martin Leslie and, in the first half, Glenn Metcalfe, but they all played well and they defended well when they had to. There were times, however, when the French backs looked as if they had been told that it was a game of touch rugby.

After the exhilaration of the first half we expected more of the same following the interval, but it fell flat. If losing Castaignede was hard, the departure of Philippe Carbonneau completed the job of tearing the guts out of the French. They lost all direction and only Christophe Dominici came out of it with any credit.

Now comes the finale to a very encouraging season for the Celts. Can Wales cap it today? I think they have a chance. England are undoubtedly the firm favourites because they are such a difficult side to beat, and they are going to be a big force in the World Cup for that reason. But Wales have a certain unpredictability about them these days that even the strongest opposition must take into account.

Wembley will hold no fears for England and the hard, fast track might even tempt them to play the double bluff. Most of the pre-match talk has been about the dour might of the English pack grinding down the attempts of the Welsh to bring their backs into play, but when you look at the English team they have all the equipment to cut loose themselves. They have three open-side flankers playing in the back-row and a back-row player, Tim Rodber, in the second row. Wales must not forget how they were annihilated at Twickenham last year. Once England gained control they played an expansive game that was lethal, and the Welsh have to be wary that the English are not planning to take them by surprise and hit them from all angles from the outset.

If that was on their minds, the late withdrawal of Jeremy Guscott might send them back into their shell. Not that Barrie-Jon Mather is any slouch, but it does weaken the experience of the English back-line. Mather, however, can offer a very different threat and his ability to off-load from tackles should give England the chance to use him as a target for drives through the middle.

Whatever way the English play, Wales' chances depend on their ability to win their own possession and try to gain as many put-ins at scrums and line-outs as possible to get a fair share of the ball. Every kick from the hands has got to be competitive and at least force them into hurried clearances. Matt Perry is pretty good under a high ball but he is still short of experience at the top level and with the two wingers also relatively new Wales could get some valuable possession from accurate kicking. But maintaining discipline and cutting down on the mistakes is as vital as being as bravely adventurous as Scotland were yesterday.

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