A sixth bottom-half finish in seven years may indicate Scotland did not quite turn the table, but a sign of the progress they have made since returning early from the World Cup last year is that success over Wales in Llanelli meant that they had recorded three successive victories in a Six Nations campaign for the first time.
They started the Six Nations in February with a self-inflicted defeat after Stuart Hogg dropped the ball in the act of scoring in Dublin and then came a close second to England in a water polo contest at Murrayfield. Scotland’s head coach, Gregor Townsend, was under pressure for the first time since taking over in 2017 and had dropped one of his talismen, the outside-half Finn Russell, for disciplinary reasons. But that was long ago and the systematic way they dismantled Wales’s threats on Saturday suggested a foundation has been laid.
Scotland profited from the lack of a crowd and the energy they drew from simple successes, such as winning a penalty at a scrum or breakdown and making a telling tackle, contrasted with the home side’s introspection. The 16-7 penalty count against Wales may not have been repeated had they been playing in front of their vocal supporters at the Principality Stadium, but in the past year they have been travelling in the opposite direction to Scotland. Their head coach, Wayne Pivac, now has some major decisions to make over players who served his predecessor, Warren Gatland, for all or most of the past decade.
“There was a lot of thought and reflection from me and others after the World Cup,” said Townsend. “I felt we would be able to become more consistent given the players we have and the lessons we had learned. One of the things we had to change was being in positions to win matches as we went into the final 20 minutes.
“I have big belief in this team and our long-term aim is to have a 30-35 strong squad where the quality on the bench is as good as that in the starting line-up. We have long had the ability to score 14 points in two minutes, but the control in the set-pieces has probably surpassed what I thought we could achieve this season.”
Scotland are grouped with France, Italy and Fiji in the Autumn Nations Cup and will have home advantage against Les Bleus, the fixture that should decide who finishes first. A problem for Townsend is that he faces being without Russell, who came off in the first-half of the 14-10 victory over Wales with a groin injury, and his replacement, Adam Hastings, who popped a shoulder. Hogg finished at 10 and kicked the final penalty to seal victory.
It said everything about Wales’s performance that in the final 10 minutes, when they trailed by a point, they put no pressure on Scotland, and the scoreline did not reflect the difference between the sides. Alun Wyn Jones broke the record for the number of international caps with 150, but at times appeared alone in his resistance. The autumn should be the time for Pivac to assess his options looking towards the next World Cup, but after five successive defeats he needs a result.
“No one likes losing but everyone goes through a patch in their career when they don’t win,” said the Wales wing Josh Adams. “It is how we come together as a team. We cannot dwell on this result with a new competition coming up. When your back is up against the wall it is about how you react.”