Wales and Scotland lay on a fitting tribute to courage of ‘humbled’ Weir
Forget the unseemly squabbling over money; the bungled public relations which saw two unions shamed into an embarrassing climbdown and the belated promise of a “six-figure donation” to Doddie Weir’s foundation.
Forget the fact that this always felt like a strange sort of a match from the outset, arranged outside the international window, with selections compromised and motives suspect.
When the man himself stepped onto the pitch yesterday, dressed in a halfblue half-red tartan suit, flanked by his wife Kathy and his three sons, and declared himself “humbled” by the outpouring of affection for him from the rugby community, and all the contributions made to his motor neurone disease charity, all cynicism dried up.
Weir’s extraordinary courage and cheerful disposition, faced with such an awful life sentence, was another reminder to forget the politics and just enjoy the rugby. Most of the 63,188 fans – even the Scottish ones – duly did.
Scotland lost again, of course. Their record at the Principality Stadium is abysmal. Ten defeats and one win since it was opened in 1999.
But the result felt of secondary importance on the day. “It would have been lovely to have won it,” head coach Gregor Townsend said. “I looked up a couple of times and Doddie was on the big screen and the reception he got from the supporters was fantastic.
“We put in a huge effort into that game. We really wanted to win the match and the trophy. We did everything we could to win it.”
The fact Scotland did not came down to individual defensive errors – Huw Jones in particular will not enjoy Monday’s video review – and a lack of accuracy in attack. The visitors dominated for long periods, enjoying 70 per cent possession and 80 per cent territory in the second half. But disallowed tries for Jonny Gray and Peter Horne proved fatal after George North and Jonathan Davies had scored for Wales either side of the break.
Wales head coach Warren Gatland, for his part, will be relatively satisfied looking ahead to Australia next weekend, a match in which Wales will attempt to end a run of 13 successive defeats against the Wallabies. This was a sixth successive win for his team. They were solid defensively. Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric all buzzed about. Ken Owens was heroic after copping a bloody nose at the end of the first half. Gareth Anscombe, getting a rare run-out at 10, did well in attack, setting up Davies’s try.
And Gatland will have been particularly pleased to see Dillon Lewis perform well at tighthead. Ever the master of the mind games, Gatland had mentioned earlier in the week that Danny Wilson, the former Cardiff coach who is now Townsend’s assistant at Scotland, had “never really rated” Lewis.
Still, Scotland will feel this was an opportunity missed. The visitors enjoyed much of the possession and territory in the first 20 minutes but did little with it.
Adam Hastings – the young Warriors fly-half who has had such a bright start to his domestic season – got off to a particularly difficult start, failing to find touch with an early penalty from the halfway line. The ensuing period of Welsh possession led to the penalty from which Leigh Halfpenny put the hosts 3-0 ahead.
Wales were more solid in defence and sharper in attack, with Anscombe prodding and probing to good effect in the absence of Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell. It remains to be seen whether the Kiwi-born playmaker has done enough to hang on to the Wales No 10 jersey on an extended basis.
Biggar will be available again next weekend and Gatland said he would wait and see how Biggar comes out of today’s Premiership Rugby Cup game at Wasps before making a decision.
It was a chip from Anscombe after 15 minutes that nearly provided the game with its first try, North touching down in the corner only for replays to reveal his foot had crossed the whitewash.
Scotland, though, had strayed offside in the build-up to that effort allowing Halfpenny to double Wales’s advantage from the tee. Jonny Gray then gave away a needless penalty, allowing Halfpenny to make it 9-0.
If that was frustrating, it was nothing to what followed. Jones’s powder-puff tackle on North allowed the wing, who had come off his flank in search of the ball, to cut through after 30 minutes. Alex Dunbar and Blair Kinghorn tried to make amends for Jones’s error but it was too late. It was North’s 34th try for his country, placing him third on the all-time list, just ahead of Ieuan Evans.
After Scotland hit back through captain and hooker Stuart McInally, who bundled his way over from close range after a driving line-out, Jones had another moment to forget early in the second half when Davies handed him off far too easily en route to his try. “Huw put his hand up in the changing room straight away,” Townsend said. “They were errors which were big mistakes in the game. He’s a player who trains really hard but if you make errors at this level…”
He did not need to finish that sentence. Gray might have scored but instead was penalised for a double movement after 62 minutes. And Peter Horne really ought to have scored with nine minutes left after racing on to George Horne’s chip kick, but dropped the ball in the act of grounding it.
“It’s a hard one to take,” Townsend reflected. “We were a couple of inches short of the try line [for Gray’s effort]. But not only do we not get the try, we get a penalty against us. I think the referee got it right though.
“And then there was Horne’s chance. We could have been more accurate.”
Welsh dominance: George North bundles his way over to make it 14-3 to Wales; (below) Doddie Weir at the match