A false dawn for Scotland
February 11, 2011
Scotland's Peter Kininmonth - pictured here in Middlesex colours - slotted a crucial drop goal to propel his side to a famous win against Wales in 1951 © Getty Images
History has little comfort to offer Wales, should it be seeking cheerful omens ahead of Saturday's visit to Murrayfield to play Scotland. All the past evidence is that when the year ends in one and Wales head north to Edinburgh, the odds are on plenty of action - much of it around the Welsh line.
Scotland v Wales fixtures over the years have favoured the home team by a ratio of around three to two, 32 wins to 22. But when there's a one on the end of the year their advantage becomes much greater, six wins to two with a single draw. Just as striking is their scoring record. An average of just under two tries per match - 106 in 55 contests - rises to more than three, 28 tries in nine.
Few of those matches have been dull or uneventful. The sequence began with one of the most brutal hammerings in Welsh history, at Raeburn Place in 1891. The record books might only give it as 15-0 to Scotland, but this was in the early days of a still-evolving points scoring system, in modern terms 43-0 as the Scots ran in seven tries to take their initial step toward their first ever Triple Crown, with two of the scores from debutant German-born threequarter Paul Clauss.
One Welsh writer, proving that coming up with unlikely excuses for poor performances is anything but a modern invention, ascribed their display to the psychological effect of visiting the dissecting rooms at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary before the match. Something, in any case, would seem to have upset brilliant fullback Billy Bancroft, who had one of the poorer games of his long international career. Another came a decade later, in 1901, when yet another Triple Crown-destined Scottish team, fielding eight new caps and seven current Edinburgh University students, ran in four more tries in an 18-8 win.
A century after that first hammering came another Scottish field day, as the 1991 team won 32-12 and ended the international careers of four of the Welsh pack, front rowers Paul Knight and Brian Williams and the Newport backrow duo of Alun Carter and Glenn George.
Wales had their own 32-12 win, in 1911, starring an all Cardiff threequarter line in a seven-try romp at Inverleith. The most recent meeting, in 2001, produced the highest aggregate score in a 28-28 draw, the only one between Scotland and Wales on Scottish soil, highlighted by three drop goals from Neil Jenkins.
They, though, pale in Welsh memory behind a spot kick, one of the three or four most memorable in 130 years of matches played by Wales teams, the extraordinary round the corner effort by my ESPNscrum colleague John Taylor 40 years ago this year, converting from the touch line a try begun with perfect line-out ball from Delme Thomas, and stretching across the width of a valiant and committed Scottish defence desperate to preserve a surprising, but hardly ill-deserved lead until the incomparable Gerald Davies scampered over unstoppably on the far right. As JT has already rightly pointed out, that 19-18 win, like the triumph of 1911 a stepping stone towards a Grand Slam, is ingrained on the memory of every Welsh fan of 50 or more.
There is, though, nothing in this striking sequence of matches to match that of 1951. Wales have rarely travelled more hopefully. They had won their first Grand Slam since 1911 the year before, sent 11 men on the Lions tour of New Zealand and had begun their Five Nations campaign with a 23-5 hammering of England at Swansea starring the brilliant running of outside-half Glyn Davies, seeming to confirm the views of those who would have had him pivoting the Welsh midfield since his first appearance as a schoolboy in the 1945-6 Victory internationals, but had seen him largely eclipsed by the more pedestrian Billy Cleaver.
A record contingent of Welshmen - there were reckoned to be 25,000 of them - made the crowd on the giant Murrayfield terraces the largest ever, at this time, to watch a rugby match. The official figure given was 81,000. Norman Mair, who hooked for Scotland, reckoned it might have been closer to 90,000.
Scotland fielded a young back division including fullback Ian Thomson, a 20-year-old debutant called up at short notice and like many Scottish fullbacks before and since a member of Heriots. The pack was rather more imposing, with figures like Mair - destined to be an even better writer than hooker - Lions No.8 Peter Kinninmonth and flanker Douglas Elliot, a back rower in the best aggressive Scottish tradition who had tackled Davies out of the same match in 1949.
Scotland matched Wales during a tightly-contested first half, taking a 3-0 lead with a penalty by Thomson. The battle continued finely balanced well into the second half, until Gerwyn Williams, usually the safest of fullbacks, failed to find touch - instead locating Kinninmonth, standing on the touchline close to the Welsh 25 yard line. To the amazement of all, except those who knew that he had been a fullback at school, the back rower dropped a breathtaking goal.
It was worth only three points, compared to the four it would have meant until scoring values were amended in 1948, but it might as well have been 20. It was the vital psychological blow. Wales collapsed in the final quarter and conceded three tries, two scored by debutant Edinburgh Wanderers wing Robert Gordon and the other by Glasgow Accies prop Hamish Dawson, the only time either scored for Scotland.
The journey home of the shattered Welsh fans had echoes of the retreat from Moscow. Half a century later prop John Robins, talking to David Parry-Jones, still recalled vividly entering a café full of Welsh fans as he made his own way home to Merseyside. "Inevitably I was recognised, and the whole room fell silent. I just wished the floor would open up and swallow me."
It was the end for Davies, a classical outside-half tackled into impotence by the marauding Elliot. At 23 he had won his last cap for Wales, a victim not only of ruthless back rowers given infinite license under the rules of the time but the rise of a still greater talent, Cliff Morgan, who made his debut when Wales played Ireland in their next match.
Gwilliam was surely right when he told Parry-Jones, "Before, and possibly after the game Wales were a better side, but in the interim - that is, when it counted - Scotland were the more spirited team, which gained confidence as the game progressed while we deteriorated."
The result was a totally false dawn for Scotland. They would not win again for another four years and 17 matches, including the 44-0 hammering later in 1951 by South Africa of which a Scottish fan is said to have remarked, "And we were damn lucky to get nil."
None of the 15 men who beat Wales would ever play in another winning Scotland team. Wales, meanwhile would recover in 1952 to claim their second Grand Slam in three seasons.
In its upsetting of expectation, its sheer size - Scotland's biggest Five Nations win between 1924 and 1984, Wales's heaviest loss to British opposition between 1924 and 1990 - and its complete lack of keeping with what was to follow, Scotland's victory over Wales at Murrayfield sixty years ago this month has a strong claim to be the most remarkable result in Championship history.
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