Scotland’s joy was Wales’s despair on an unreal afternoon when the lack of a crowd was telling. The team that won the grand slam last season desperately missed the energy home support provides as they found themselves outplayed in most areas, especially the breakdown, by the men in blue who celebrated their first victory in Wales since 2002.
Scotland celebrated among themselves after appearing to line up for a lap of honour and then remembering there was no one to wave to. It was an eerie way to conclude their championship, played on a ground that was an echo chamber and in blustery conditions that made throwing into the lineout hazardous.
Scotland had not won an away march in the Six Nations other than in Rome since 2010, but they fully merited their success here in a game with little fluidity and where defences dominated. The two tries came directly from lineouts, both Scotland’s throws, and neither tryline was threatened in open play. Wales spent the match looking for a foothold but never found it.
They were undone principally at the breakdown where Jamie Ritchie led a marauding pack. Wales lost their openside, Justin Tipuric, on the morning of the match when he woke with tonsillitis, but his absence alone did not explain the home side’s failure there in both defence and attack. Scotland were quicker to react and appreciate what was possible under the revised interpretations at the tackle area.
“We’re very disappointed,” Wales’ head coach, Wayne Pivac, told the BBC. “It was difficult conditions, you saw that with the lineouts. I don’t think we got one straight for the first two or three from either side.
“The breakdown was the big difference. Last week it went in our favour and this week it went the other way.”
Tipuric’s absence meant Wales had seven changes from last week in Paris when they had been beaten by France. There was a marked improvement in defence where their line across the field rarely allowed Scotland to scent the gainline never mind gallop over it, but they offered little in attack and were unable to impose themselves in the final 10 minutes when the Scots were nursing a one-point lead.
Gregor Townsend, Scotalnd’s head coach, said there was much to improve on, but there was also much to savour.
If the swirling wind made lineout throwing hazardous, a bold decision by Stuart Hogg to go for touch rather than the posts with 20 minutes to go proved the pivotal moment and they were forced to use three fly-halves. Finn Russell suffered a groin stain after 30 minutes and when his replacement, Adam Hastings, injured a shoulder, Hogg played the final 12 minutes at 10.
Most of the few back movements of note were orchestrated by Scotland. Hogg and Chris Harris exchanged passes in the opening half after attempts to bludgeon through the midfield had failed only for Dan Biggar, who went off two minutes into the second period with a bad back, to read the play as Harris sensed a try. Then Owen Watkin brought down Blair Kinghorn after the wing had encroached into the midfield.
Otherwise it was a performance Scotland have not often been associated with; gritty and hard-boiled. They were on the front foot for most of the match, but after taking an early lead with a Russell penalty failed to make position tell.
Wales suffered from a lack of ammunition but still led at half-time thanks to the quick thinking of Taulupe Faletau. The No 8 could have been accused of taking the wrong option when he picked up the ball 30 metres out in Wales’s first sustained attack after 29 minutes. He held on to a poor pass from Gareth Davies, but rather than keeping the ball in hand he deftly kicked it into touch to give Scotland a throw 10 metres from their line on a day when five of the first seven lineouts were deemed not straight.
Fraser Brown threw to Scott Cummings at the back but the second-row needed a stepladder to claim the ball. Ryan Elias seized on it and Wales set up a series of drives that culminated in Rhys Carré being driven over.
Biggar ricked his back kicking the conversion and Wales’s lead was reduced to a point when Hastings landed a penalty at the end of the half.
The sides started the second determined to play at a higher tempo, but Wales continued to concede penalties at the breakdown: the overall count was 16-7 against them.
It was a penalty that decided the match and Hogg’s decision to go for touch. Stuart McInally found Jonny Gray and Scotland drove a maul from 25 metres out that so quickly gathered momentum that Wales had no chance of defending it and McInally scored.
Leigh Halfpenny’s penalty brought Wales back to within a point but they were never close to matching Scotland who had a nerve-free final 10 minutes and settled it with a Hogg penalty that, typically, had been won by Ritchie at the breakdown.
The win took Scotland, briefly, level with Ireland at the top of the table while Wales suffered their worst Six Nations finish since 2007. From slam to slammed.