Townsend inspires grand design

Five Nations' Championship: Thomas a kick away from repeating history as his rival stand-off turns on the wizardry; Wales 14 Scotland 16 Try: Proctor 79 Try: Townsen d 74 Pens: A Thomas 14, 35, 57 Con: Dods 74 Pens: Dods 2, 36, 54
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THERE was a moment, less than two minutes from the end of this blazingly fast, breathlessly entertaining match, when all good and trusty Scots were overcome by deja vu. In 1971 John Taylor, with his conversion of Gerald Davies's try, had brought Wales back from the dead at Murrayfield. In Cardiff, 25 years later, 21-year-old Arwel Thomas in only his third international was entrusted with the most important kick of his short rugby life.

The Scots, seven points ahead, had just conceded a try to Wayne Proctor. The kick, four yards in from touch and testing enough at the best of times would have levelled the scores and given Wales a draw which their passion and commitment had fully deserved. Thomas struck it well enough, but as the ball made towards the upright it veered fractionally off course. In that moment, the game was won and lost. Although for Wales it is a second successive championship defeat, they can have no reason to be any less encouraged by this performance than they were a fortnight ago at Twickenham.

They will come to realise, perhaps, that this is a Scottish side of extraordinary depth and resilience. It is as if they had taken a decision at the start of this campaign single-handedly to restore the lustre to a game which has been all too easily tarnished of late. This was a rapturous, if often uneven, celebration of running rugby in which the Welsh played their full part. Throughout a second half played at a relentlessly fast tempo, there was scarcely time to draw breath.

In the midst of it, inevitably, was Gregor Townsend. He made mistakes - plenty of them. His kicking to touch at crucial times was woefully inaccurate and sometimes he took the wrong option, but never once did one want to take the eyes off him.

The Welsh certainly never did, and although they penned him in successfully for most of the time, he occasionally burst out with a rich mixture of power, effrontery and silken touch. In one dazzling passage in the first half, when the Scots were enjoying their most prolonged period of ascendancy, Townsend executed a loop as audaciously close to the cannon's mouth as it is possible to come without disappearing down the barrel, and then with a curving break took the Scots within a few yards of the Welsh line.

But it was the wizardry of his masked pass inside to Kenny Logan, a replacement for Craig Joiner, which split open the Welsh defence and led to the Scottish try. It was a moment to savour above all others. From the scrum underneath the Welsh posts Bryan Redpath, who was once again massively influential at scrum-half, Ian Smith and Redpath again handled before Townsend squeezed over the line.

It had been penalties up to that point but none the less entertaining for that. For the first time this season the Scots were confronted by a set of apparently insurmountable problems up front and it was a measure of their resourcefulness that they managed to find the right solutions. The Welsh line-out, which for so much of the game was awesomely efficient, and their weight advantage in the scrummage seemed for much of the game as though it would be decisive. There was no amount of Scottish guile that could paper over the deepening cracks appearing in their machinery.

There were flashes of great skill mixed liberally with moments of high farce as players from the same side clattered into each other in their frenzied attempts to find space. When the openings came, however, there were players of the necessary calibre to take advantage of them. Justin Thomas, who has probably spent the last fortnight in a darkened room following his Twickenham experience, stepped out into the light in front of his own crowd. Three or four times he ran with lethal precision at the Scottish defence and twice in the first half came within inches of scoring. Rob Howley merely confirmed the promise he had shown against England with another ruggedly uncompromising display at the base of the Welsh scrum. His running posed a constant danger to the Scottish flank forwards and, like Thomas, he came within a fingernail of scoring in the first half after exploding on to a lineout ball effortlessly secured by Derwyn Jones.

So much of the play, particularly in the first half, centred on the lineout. For the first 20 minutes, when the Scots were forced to seek the shelter of the touchline, they scarcely saw the ball. Jones and Gareth Llewellyn were in control and the Scots, whose game plan depends upon the briefest of frontal engagements followed by swift relief, were like beached whales. But little by little they fought their way through. By modern standards, their pack is positively Lilliputian yet somehow they managed to win in sufficient possession to feed their backs.

As with the most successful of Scottish sides in the recent past, the work of forwards who are in the main physically inferior to their opponents is crucial and in Rob Wainwright the Scots have an inspirational leader and a magnificent loose forward. Yesterday he did the work of three men, covering every area and constructing so many of the Scots most productive counter-attacks. With just one hurdle to go, albeit a mighty one, and the sequence of this year's campaign following the pattern set in 1990 and in 1984, both Grand Slam years for the Scots, they must be favourites to do it again.

Wales: J Thomas; I Evans (both Llanelli), L Davies (Neath), N Davies, W Proctor (Llanelli), A Thomas (Bristol), R Howley (Bridgend), P Lewis (Cardiff), J Humphreys (Cardiff, capt), J Davies, G Llewellyn (both Neath), D Jones, E Lewis (both Cardiff), G Jones (Llanelli), H Taylor (Cardiff).

Scotland: R Shepherd; C Joiner (both Melrose), S Hastings (Watsonians), I Jardine (Stirling County), M Dods, G Townsend (both Northampton), B Redpath (Melrose), D Hilton (Bath), K McKenzie (Stirling County), P Wright (Boroughmuir), S Campbell (Dundee High School FP), G Weir (Melrose), R Wainwright (West Hartlepool, capt), I Smith (Gloucester), E Peters (Bath). Replacement: K Logan (Stirling County) for Joiner (40).

Referee: J Dume (France).

How they stand

P W D L F A Pts

Scotland 3 3 0 0 51 38 6

France 3 2 0 1 74 41 4

England 2 1 0 1 33 30 2

Wales 2 0 0 2 29 37 0

Ireland 2 0 0 2 20 61 0

Remaining fixtures: 2 March: Ireland v Wales (Lansdowne Road, 3.0); Scotland v England (Murrayfield, 3.0). 16 March: England v Ireland (Twickenham, 3.0); Wales v France (Cardiff Arms Park, 2.30).