6N: Scotland out to prove its not a one-hit wonder
Consistency is not a virtue of Scotland's rugby team.
After beating its oldest rival at Twickenham for the first time in 38 years, Scotland has dangled rehabbed ambition to buzzed fans of turning that historic result against England into something bigger.
Such was the thrashing dished to the Six Nations defending champion on its home patch in the rain that expectations have pumped up of Scotland finally winning the tournament for the first time since 1999. The remaining schedule is three home games around a trip to France.
Wales is next on Saturday at Murrayfield and Scotland will go into the freezing evening match favored.
That's a 180-degree turnabout from going to London as the underdog. Only the squad believed it could ambush England, and the self-belief was quickly evident. The Scots blunted England’s strengths, flummoxed England into giving away penalties and possession, and never let up.
England, exposed by selection mistakes, reacted by saying it had an off day, which is what a side which wins regularly can say. Scotland knows all about off days. Too often a milestone win is followed by prolonged mediocrity. On coach Gregor Townsend's watch, a win over Australia in Sydney in 2017 was followed by defeat to Fiji, and a home win over England in 2018 was followed by a loss away to Ireland.
There's a reason why Scotland's longest winning streak is only six tests, achieved twice, the last time in 1990. That record could have been equaled last November at Murrayfield but the Scots faded against France and missed out on the Autumn Nations Cup final.
Townsend is challenging his team to maintain that intensity from Twickenham, and to embrace the favorites tag with the maturity with which they outclassed England.
"The squad performed to a level which has to be the benchmark throughout the tournament,” Townsend says.
Scotland has been building to this moment for the past year. The biggest difference from the autumn is discipline. Scotland conceded only an astonishing six penalties to England’s 15.
Jonny Gray leads the robust set-piece, and the defence is directed by a Welshman, Steve Tandy, a former Ospreys coach whom the Wales players respect: They took only 10 points off Scotland at home in November. And the attack has been reined in since the Rugby World Cup implosion, with Finn Russell toying with time and space and Stuart Hogg carting a lethal confidence.
"We have put ourselves in a position that we have not done in a while. In the last 20 years we have won the first game maybe three times,” says workhorse flanker Jamie Ritchie, out injured. “So we have put ourselves in a position to go on to do something special.”
Wales is in that position, too, but the cost of squeezing past a 14-man Ireland side on Sunday was losing to injuries Dan Lydiate, Josh Navidi, Tomos Williams, Johnny Williams, George North and Hallam Amos; nearly 230 caps of experience.
Wales has been patched up, and into the reserves has been summoned uncapped Cardiff back Uilisi Halaholo, whose skillset Wales coach Wayne Pivac rates better than Jamie Roberts', the available former British Lion.
The makeshift backline is behind a veteran pack which has its own issues, notably the lineout. Wales lost four throw-ins, one leading to Ireland’s try.
Defence coach Gethin Jenkins also wasn’t enamored of Wales having to make 240 tackles (missing 23), saying the workload meant the team was being deficient in other areas.
The Welsh have been consistent at Murrayfield, winning five of their last six visits, which puts them, Jenkins adds, under just as much pressure as Scotland to win there.
“When you win, you have got to back it up,” Jenkins says. "You can't think you are top of the world, you've got to knuckle down and work on the stuff that got you that win.”
Scotland: Stuart Hogg (captain), Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, James Lang, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell, Ali Price; Matt Fagerson, Hamish Watson, Blade Thomson, Jonny Gray, Scott Cummings, Zander Fagerson, George Turner, Rory Sutherland. Reserves: David Cherry, Oli Kebble, WP Nel, Richie Gray, Gary Graham, Scott Steele, Jaco van der Walt, Huw Jones.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Louis Rees-Zammit, Owen Watkin, Nick Tompkins, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Aaron Wainwright, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Adam Beard, Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, Wyn Jones. Reserves: Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones, Leon Brown, Will Rowlands, James Botham, Kieran Hardy, Callum Sheedy, Uilisi Halaholo.
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