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Peter Jackson: This Scotland team are a serious item

Scotland reaffirmed their status as title contenders yesterday by treating the faithful to something they had not witnessed for a long time, a Welsh team disintegrating before their very eyes.

The formal end to the most one-sided British fixture in the Six Nations ridiculed one theory and obliterated another. The neutrals who tended to dismiss the Scots’ winning start against Ireland as nothing more than a flash in the Six Nations pan are a lot wiser this morning.

And those in Wales who kept talking their team up as potential champions will wake up nursing a heavy dose of reality. That means finishing fourth at best, a scenario which appeared with painful clarity to those of us who spent November peering through the confusion swirling around the autumn series.

Finn Russell was a 14-year-old schoolboy in Stirling the last time Scotland beat Wales. Tommy Seymour had still to complete the long haul from Nashville to Glasgow via Belfast and Tim Visser had only just made the shorter journey from his native Holland.

Ten years is a very long time and Wales, returning as though they owned the place, controlled almost the entire first half in the manner of a landlord about to renew the lease for another ten years. For the faithful, Scotland’s stylish re-imposition of home rule made it worth the wait.

Nobody ought to be surprised that Scotland and the Six Nations are a serious item at long last. Nor should anyone be surprised that Wales should have been counted out of the title equation within seven days of their near-miss against the champions.

Finding the hwyl to fuel the patriotic fires against England has never been a problem for the Welsh underdog. Finding the precision to translate their first-half authority into points when the nation not so much expects them to win as demands it, is another matter entirely.

Alun-Wyn Jones, in characteristically prickly mood pre-match, advised his team to ‘expect the unexpected’ – not that he would have expected to have been overruled by his kickers in declining a 50th minute shot at goal in favour of going for the corner.

As captain, Jones would have hammered home the need for cool heads to translate territory into points – easier said than done for a team whose whole philosophy has revolved around bashing into opponents rather than finding a way round them.

That has never required much by way of finesse. To their credit, Wales found enough to produce a try of genuine class, three slick passes allowing Liam Williams enough room to beat the covering Stuart Hogg.

Rhys Webb’s swift tap-penalty had made it all possible and yet moments later with the Scots on the ropes, the scrum-half sabotaged what ought to have been a second try with thinking that was anything but smart.

He would have got away with obstructing Seymour off-the-ball pre-TMO but even if Webb had kept his hands to himself after putting Liam Williams clear, the Saracens-bound Scarlet somehow ran a semi- circular line into a cul-de-sac.

Despite that, Wales could always rely on Leigh Halfpenny in front of goal to keep them a reasonably safe distance clear, or so they thought until the man who hardly ever misses did, from a modest range.   Instead of turning round ten points clear at 16-6, Russell promptly cut the deficit to four points at 13-9.

And from that point on, Wales went from bad to worse to such an extent that they lost the second-half 20-0. A collector’s item of a knock-on from Halfpenny set the tone for as barren a 40 minutes as Wales have endured in the Six Nations anytime, anywhere.

Against a defence which they had hitherto found impenetrable, the Scots stitched together two moves worthy of winning any match.  Huw Jones’ dummy run put the Welsh security system on the blink long enough for the acrobatic Seymour to make a wondrous left-handed finish a second or two before Scott Williams’ cover tackle put his right arm into touch-in-goal.

Fifteen minutes later, Webb’s gymnastics counted for nothing because video inspection showed his trailing leg in touch about half a second before he could complete his one-handed finish.  Rather than trotting out the old cliché about a game of fine margins, the Welsh management would be better off examining why that turned out to be their last shot.

Their game began to unravel at an alarming rate. When Jones went for the corner instead of the posts with only six points in it and half an hour to go, they were penalised for obstructing the line-out.

If Scotland could hardly believe their luck, they must have been positively dumbfounded when they won a penalty from a scrum, a set-piece that had been in constant peril of splintering at every engagement.

That wasn’t the only shock.   Justin Tipuric’s air of infallibility made a knock-on in contact seem almost sacrilegious. And then, Visser skinned George North before the flying Dutchman came back for the try from which Wales never recovered.

Just as Owen Farrell’s pass had done for Wales a fortnight earlier, so Russell delivered an equally exquisite one to exploit the gap left by Jonathan Davies.    Hogg’s sleight of hand worked like such a dream for Visser that while he cruised over, North could be seen in his slipstream, clawing at thin air.

John Barclay, the Glaswegian Scarlet and first Scot to captain his country from a Welsh club against Wales since the celebrated Lion Arthur Smith did so from Ebbw Vale in 1960, played the role of the gracious victor so admirably that he lauded the vanquished as ‘a very good Welsh side’.’

Very good teams are not eliminated from a five-round contest with two rounds to go.

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