At certain points during Scotland’s 17 years of often undistinguished participation in the Six Nations the phrase “we did win the second half” was occasionally trotted out as a demonstration in straw-clutching par excellence.
Usually it came after a late consolation try or two had put a minimally more positive gloss on a game that had been dead and buried by the interval. On Saturday at BT Murrayfield we saw what it really means to win the second half as Scotland delivered 20 magnificent unanswered points to wash Wales away and end a decade of hurt against the men in red with pleasing panache.
Scotland’s poor record since Five became Six in 2000 means that we cannot complain too much about the dismissive and patronising comments that have regularly been thrown our way by Celtic cousins over recent years, grating though they may be.
It is clear that the obvious progress that has been made under Vern Cotter in the past 18 months is taking time to sink in with our rivals, though more performances like Saturday’s and that advantage of surprise will fast fade. While Ireland, who may yet bounce back from their opening-day defeat at BT Murrayfield and end up champions, could legitimately claim they should have won in Edinburgh, the Welsh whining rang a lot more hollow. A report in a Welsh newspaper claimed that this was a game their men “should have won at a canter” before bestowing the faintest of praise on “dogged Scotland”.
For all that the visitors dominated the first half – though they could only carve out a four-point lead – and looked dangerous in patches, this was no wafer-thin, smash-and-grab win by plucky and lucky upstarts. Rather, it was a 16-point dismantling of a complacent team which looked to run quickly out of ideas.
To the eyes of any fair neutral it would not take long to identify which of these sides is on the up and which is in obvious decline. Wales, for far too long our tormentors, are now toast in this championship while Scotland, gloriously and for the first time in Six Nations history, head into the final fortnight with hopes sky high.
If, against admittedly long odds, the Calcutta Cup and Triple Crown can be won at Twickenham a week on Saturday then there may, incredibly, depending on other results, come a shot at the whole shooting match at home to Italy on the final weekend.
But despite all the euphoria of Saturday’s second home win of the championship, those are flights of fancy that remain alien to the Scottish mindset.
The most important thing was to win this pivotal clash and ensure that the trip to Twickenham carried some positive baggage rather than descend depressingly again into the doom-laden trek south of the past 34 years.
It was won by virtue of the Scotland team clinically taking their chances when they arose at what seemed the perfect moments, while the Welsh squandered several key ones of their own – a sweet reversal in what has so often been the story of this fixture.
Greig Laidlaw and Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny have been cited as two of the best goalkickers in world rugby and the loss of the home side’s skipper was viewed as a tilt towards the men from the Principality. Finn Russell made a mockery of that assessment with a flawless seven out of seven which earned him the man-of-the-match award.
After the two kickers had traded penalties, it was Wales who made the first significant move when left wing Liam Williams finished off a straight-forward through-the-hands move in the corner and Halfpenny converted majestically from the touchline. A penalty apiece followed before Halfpenny endured a rare miss and Russell responded to turn what could have been a 16-6 half-time chasm into a more optimistic base camp for the second-half push.
And what a push it was. There was no try for Stuart Hogg on this occasion but the Scotland full-back was at the heart of everything. His fine pass put the excellent Tim Visser away down the right before a perfect pop allowed Tommy Seymour to squeeze in at the corner. Hogg’s retina-defyingly deft touch on to Visser, who had earlier saved a score with a great tackle on the always menacing scrum-half Rhys Webb, for the Scots’ decisive second try was even better. Russell kept the scoreboard ticking, whereas Wales had earlier made a baffling kick to touch when a match-levelling three points were on offer – to the clear consternation of Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones afterwards.
For Scotland, who were led impressively by John Barclay, the only blot was the tournament-ending injury to John Hardie, though replacement Hamish Watson was magnificent. As was 23-year-old Ali Price on his first Test start. The scrum shook at times but ultimately held. Twickenham now looms large but, perhaps, not quite as ominously as it might have.