CARDIFF, WALES – Wales got its Six Nations title ambitions back on track in an entertaining ninth straight win over Scotland by 27-23 on Saturday.
Wales scored the first of its three tries quickly, but lost the lead for nearly 50 minutes as Scotland showed the gumption it displayed in the Rugby World Cup, under a roof that kept out the Cardiff rain and allowed the teams to express themselves.
And put on a show they did before a sellout crowd, in a match full of movement that was easily the tournament’s best yet.
Wales moved into provisional second place in the standings, with a chance to cement its status as championship favorite when it hosts leader France in two weeks.
“If we can beat France, then you are potentially playing England for the championship (in round four),” Wales coach Warren Gatland said. “Having that two-week preparation is hopefully going to hold us in good stead.”
Captain Sam Warburton added: “Historically, we tend to get gradually better as the tournament goes on. We were much better than last week (a 16-16 draw with Ireland).”
Chastened by having to come back from 13-0 down against Ireland, Wales blasted out of the blocks against Scotland. From its own half, a chip by flyhalf Dan Biggar was tapped back by Jamie Roberts, and a lonesome Gareth Davies on the halfway line scooped up the loose ball and took off. The scrumhalf stepped Scotland fullback Stuart Hogg and just beat the cover to the left corner.
Biggar converted, and Wales seemed to be off and running.
But the Scots then decided not to give the ball back to Wales. They went through 21 phases, whipped along by fast recycling and snappy passing by captain Greig Laidlaw, who sniped at the Welsh defense and made them crowd the breakdowns. It paid off near the tryline when flyhalf Finn Russell noticed the Welsh backs up too close, chipped the ball into the in-goal, and winger Tommy Seymour plunked it down.
Seymour, so good under the high ball, defused another Welsh up-and-under, and flanker John Barclay burst from the ruck for 30 meters but didn’t see Hogg on his inside and kicked the ball into touch.
Flankers Barclay and John Hardie were frustrating Welsh opposites Warburton and Justin Tipuric at the breakdowns, and Laidlaw and Biggar traded penalties in the last 10 minutes of the half for Scotland to deservedly be up 13-10.
The scores were level again soon after halftime, and Wales showed its edge over the Scots when it sent in forwards Gethin Jenkins, Ken Owens, and Bradley Davies, who offered more than 200 caps combined. Scotland’s five forward reserves had 54.
Laidlaw’s third penalty had the Scots ahead going into the last quarter, but they were tiring. And when Wales stopped its aimless kicking, winger Tom James broke out on the left wing, and was cut down in time by Duncan Taylor.
But Wales turned a foothold in the Scotland 22 into a camp. It ended only when Roberts, off ruck ball, crashed over in a double tackle. With the conversion, Wales led 20-16, and assumed control.
Victory was certain five minutes later when George North, darting into midfield off scrum ball 30 meters out, wrong-footed four defenders to score his first try in six matches, since before the World Cup.
To its credit, Scotland was unbowed and Ruaridh Jackson, who replaced the injured Hogg just before halftime, put Taylor through a gap to score the sort of try they couldn’t create against England last weekend. But Scotland’s Six Nations losing streak was up to nine.
France edges Ireland
France likely ended Ireland’s chances of winning a third consecutive Six Nations by taking their gritty match 10-9 and becoming a title contender on Saturday.
France had not beaten Ireland since a warmup for the 2011 World Cup, and that dismal run looked set to continue when flyhalf Jonathan Sexton’s three penalties put the injury-hit Irish 9-3 up by the interval.
But the French changed their props, tightened their defense, and the attack came to life in the last 15 minutes, thanks to the fresh legs and quick hands of replacement scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud.
After a series of French scrum put-ins in front of the Irish posts, after which Ireland was warned by referee Jaco Peyper that it risked conceding a penalty try, the French suddenly hooked quick ball, and Machenaud picked out fullback Maxime Medard on the right to slip into a half gap and score.
Plisson converted for a one-point lead, and this new-look France held on for the last 10 minutes for a second narrow victory in two matches.