THE CYNICS came in their hundreds to bury the Five Nations' Championship rather than praise it, but they ended an enthralling day of international rugby seeking a way out of the hole they had dug for themselves. A shovel- load of humble pie for dinner, sir? How about a spadeful of your own juicy words for supper? Jim Telfer will never threaten Mark Antony as an orator - to be sure, he would look fairly daft in a tartan toga - but Scotland's coach hit the nail squarely on the head by pronouncing: "The only thing that needs burying right now is all this guff about the end of Celtic rugby."
Having watched Irish hearts beat green and proud in Paris in the early afternoon, the prophets of pessimism were then confronted with the baffling spectacle of Gregor Townsend, Rob Wainwright, Arwel Thomas and, most imaginatively of all, Allan Bateman pushing back the frontiers of a sport that had supposedly left them stationary in its slipstream. Wales and Scotland did not produce a classic at Wembley on Saturday and the southern superpowers will not be heading for the meths bottle in a state of collective depression, but there was more than enough sparkle to force rugby's grim reaper into a U-turn.
"I'm getting bored with this "death of the Five Nations' theory," Telfer said. "For some reason, everyone is talking up England and France as though they are super-teams and whenever I've been interviewed over the last fortnight, I've been fed this line about a gulf between us and them. Why don't people just look at the rugby we've just played? The only great truth about rugby that emerged from this game is that you only win matches if you take your chances. We created six clear-cut opportunities and chucked four of them away."
Actually, Telfer might have coined a second rugby maxim as a result of his side's narrow and in many ways unfortunate defeat: namely, that a side is only as good as its last injury. Both Wales and Scotland suffered early casualties and while the Scots never fully came to terms with the loss of their full-back, Derrick Lee, 11 minutes before the break, the Welsh were positively transformed by the deep cut to the eyebrow suffered by Neil Jenkins at the end of the opening quarter. Indeed, the only mistake Lee made during his otherwise electric contribution was to put Jenkins off the field with a sharp but perfectly legal hand-off.
While Lee's replacement, Rowen Shepherd, made enough public cock-ups to earn himself a seat in the next Tory cabinet - "Rowen tried to run the ball from some impossible positions when he should have been using that big right boot of his," muttered Telfer - the unexpected introduction of Thomas in Jenkins' stead increased Wales' attacking options by something close to 100 per cent. "We were prepared for Jenkins, but Arwel is a very different player," acknowledged the rival coach.
Thomas probed and prodded and mixed up his game far more effectively than against England a fortnight earlier. His instinctive understanding of how to maximise an overlap produced Wayne Proctor's game-turning try three minutes into the second half and his sleight of hand allowed Scott Gibbs and, in particular, Bateman to carry the game to the Scottish midfield.
There are risks and hazards with Thomas, of course; as Barry John, his greatest forerunner in the Welsh No 10 shirt, pointed out: "There is always a try on when he gets the ball, but you're never completely sure which side will score it." For all that, his brazen cheek warms the spirit. Wales should stick by him, for he will win them more games than he loses.
Just as Scotland should stand by Townsend through thick and thin. The Northampton centre has been booed and barracked to high heaven by a peculiarly vindictive Franklins Gardens crowd this season, but for half an hour on Saturday he bordered on the sublime. "In a sense, the problem with Gregor is not Gregor's problem at all," said Ian McGeechan, his club coach and international advisor, recently. "His thought processes tend to be half a yard in front of everyone else's and if they're not on their toes, his best ideas can backfire."
Reassured by the sharp intelligence of Lee, Alan Tait and the new left wing, Shaun Longstaff, Townsend dipped deep into his bag of tricks from the first whistle and very nearly put Scotland out of sight. Three visionary touches in the opening gambit of the game resulted in a sixth-minute candidate for try of the championship and the Wembley air was pregnant with possibility every time he had the ball.
Wales were simply not at the races as Damian Cronin claimed a second Scottish try from close range on 34 minutes; Wainwright, lean and hungry after a season of Townsend-scale criticism, was ruling the roost in the loose exchanges and his back-row colleagues, Eric Peters and Adam Roxburgh, were scarcely less effective. It took two Thomas penalties amid the dying embers of the first half to keep the "home" side within arm's length of their opponents.
But then the Scottish mistakes started creeping in. One suicidal Shepherd pass gave Wales the field position for Proctor's galvanising score in the right corner and the Melrose full-back compounded the error by ignoring Roxburgh on his left shoulder and kicking away a third try that was there for the taking. Townsend would do something similar a short while later and when Joel Dume, the French referee, threw the advantage law out of the nearest window and denied Wainwright a certain score, the die was cast.
"It was either Rob's try or a penalty try," said Arthur Hastie, the Scottish manager, who was hardly alone in wondering why Dume whistled for Gareth Thomas' desperate obstruction on Craig Chalmers just as Wainwright was purring unchallenged towards the line. The irony that followed four minutes from the end was almost too bitter to bear; Chalmers fell offside as the impressive Colin Charvis drove one last time into the Scottish underbelly and Arwel Thomas made no mistake from 30 metres.
"It was backs against the wall time for us and that probably explains why it wasn't pretty," said Rob Howley, a profoundly relieved Welsh captain. It may not have been drop-dead beautiful, but after the humiliation of Twickenham, it was very definitely more Claudia Schiffer than Thora Hird. The Welsh are happy, the Scots are encouraged and the Five Nations is back in credit.
Wales: Try: Proctor. Conversion A Thomas; Penalties A Thomas 3, Jenkins. Scotland: Tries Townsend, Cronin. Penalty Chalmers.
WALES: K Morgan (Pontypridd); W Proctor (Llanelli), A Bateman (Richmond), S Gibbs (Swansea), G Thomas (Cardiff); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Howley (Cardiff, capt); A Lewis (Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea), D Young (Cardiff), M Voyle (Llanelli), A Moore (Swansea), R Appleyard (Swansea), C Charvis (Swansea), K Jones (Ebbw Vale). Replacements: A Thomas (Swansea) for N Jenkins, 18; S Quinnell (Richmond) for Appleyard, 59; J Humphreys (Cardiff) for G Jenkins, 69.
SCOTLAND: D Lee (London Scottish); A Stanger (Hawick), A Tait (Newcastle), G Townsend (Northampton), S Longstaff (Dundee HSFP); C Chalmers (Melrose), G Armstrong (Newcastle, capt); D Hilton (Bath), G Bulloch (West of Scotland), M Stewart (Northampton), D Cronin (Wasps), G Weir (Newcastle), R Wainwright (Dundee HSFP), E Peters (Bath), A Roxburgh (Kelso).Replacements: R Shepherd (Melrose) for Lee, 29; S Grimes (Watsonians) for Cronin, 51; G Graham (Newcastle) for Stewart, 66.
Referee: J Dume (France).