Distracted Wales emerge from torrid week with Grand Slam dreams intact

Wales are now one step away from Grand Slam glory, but their 18-11 victory over Scotland was far from easy. Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- Wales' Grand Slam campaign rolls on and although it was far from easy, it was never going to be after the week they have had. The Six Nations leaders were tested by Scotland and were only on top for a quarter of their 18-11 win at Murrayfield, but over the 80 minutes they showed why they have now won 13 games in a row and are on course for their first tournament sweep since 2012.

This is a side that has forgotten how to lose, even in the circumstances of a tumultuous week dominated by off-field discussions of domestic disruption and talk of regions at war with each other. The news of the proposed merger between Ospreys and Scarlets altered Wales' training plans on Monday and Tuesday and although the uncertainty of 'Project Reset' still looms large, Wales will gladly move on and leave this week behind them.

"I tip my hat to the players for digging deep," Wales head coach Warren Gatland said afterwards, referring both to the game and the days leading up to it. "These guys are finding ways to win and that's what great sides do."

This indeed was a new way to win. With the team having dispatched England in Cardiff two weeks ago, the timing of the fallout could not have been worse. Although the Welsh camp stressed that they were solely focussed on putting in a performance against Scotland, it was the public response that you would have expected and in truth the only answer worth paying attention to was how they would actually perform at Murrayfield, where the Welsh lost on their last visit in 2017.

Their opening 10 minutes and subsequent second-half display did little to reassure their fans of that. But it was the way they defended, ground out the result and what unfolded in between that shows why they are favourites to pip England and Ireland for the Grand Slam.

Prying eyes from Twickenham and Dublin undoubtedly sat up at the sight of those early Welsh mistakes and the way they completely surrendered possession in a one-sided second half, but England learned in Cardiff that Wales are absolutely ruthless and Ireland will only be too aware ahead of next week.

Wales' response to their messy start, which saw Gareth Davies spill two kicks, was not emphatic, but it was assured. They went down the other end and scored two quick tries from two opportunities, the first through the electric Josh Adams, the livewire wing who has such a natural sense for the tryline, and the second through Jonathan Davies.

What was clear during Wales' brief but decisive spell on top was the unshakeable confidence in each other and those who come into the team. Their starting XV had only one change from the side that conquered England and that was Adam Beard, the giant lock who has now been on the winning side in all 12 of his international appearances.

As Wales pressed for their second try, there was complete faith that the immense midfield pair of Jonathan Davies and man of the match Hadleigh Parkes would be there to take the ball and crash into the gainline. Their possession stemmed from the assurance of Liam Williams, unbeatable in the air, who rose twice to pluck the ball from the crisp Edinburgh sky when Scotland looked to clear.

Strangely, Wales' authority on the ball completely evaporated after the break as the possession and territory statistics were turned upside down. Even Gatland admitted afterwards that their minds may have prematurely drifted towards Ireland.

Scotland pushed to convert their dominance of the ball into points and the home crowd howled at each wayward kick and loose pass as the play broke down and it became evident that they would fall short once again.

Really though, Scotland's fans should come away from Murrayfield proud of their sides' efforts. Down at half time and with a team already blighted by injury reduced even further due to the loss of Tommy Seymour and Blair Kinghorn, head coach Gregor Townsend stitched up the side with the only parts he had available to him. Adam Hastings entered and played at fullback, while scrum-half Ali Price shifted to the wing when Grieg Laidlaw came on. It was far from ideal.

But instead of simply surrendering, Scotland fought back and with just four points separating the sides entering the final 10 minutes, the crowd could smell the whiff of Grand Slam dreams being spoiled. Scotland parked themselves in Wales' 22, asking far more questions than England managed in the second half in Cardiff.

Yet Wales stood strong and huge praise must be given to the determination of their forward pack, who took blow after blow and fended off wave after wave of Scottish pressure. "We threw everything at them," Scotland captain Stuart McInally said. "We just ran out of time."

Wales got the result they needed but internally they will be seething with how this week has unfolded, and relieved that their second-half performance didn't cost them their ultimate goal of the Grand Slam.

According to those in the Welsh camp, clarity on the future of the Welsh regions isn't expected until after the Six Nations, but for now the issue has been parked. Wales have emerged from a tumultuous week with the perfect record intact, their winning streak extended and their Grand Slam hopes as alive as they have ever been.

Few wins in Gatland's tenure would have been secured in as hectic and disruptive circumstances, and his side will gladly move on to a final-round showdown with Ireland and away from the murky talk of domestic restructure and World Rugby politics.

Any talk of off-field matters will not be tolerated in the coming week, ahead of Gatland's last Six Nations match in charge of Wales and with the title on the line. The message now could not be clearer.