AS the tournament that turns rugby’s winter into spring got underway in Cardiff yesterday Scottish optimism once again melted like snow off a dyke when confronted by a fired-up Welsh side that, in the competition’s first 80 minutes, transformed general expectations for the rest of this Six Nations Championship.

Amid the feverish excitement generated by the Murrayfield try fest in November, there remained a deep concern that Scotland had played as they had been allowed to by Southern Hemisphere sides on what are, for them, end of season tours and that they would have different questions to answer once tournament rugby was back underway.

What made this loss all the more disappointing, though, was the extent to which they contributed to their own downfall, rather than being over-powered.

They had begun encouragingly, dominating the first six minutes during which the highlight was a clean break by the unlikely figure of Jonny Gray inside the Welsh 22, the lock getting to within five metres, but unable to find support as he was dragged down.

However, as they built again, probing down the right flank around half way, Ali Price did not so much telegraph his intended miss-pass to Jon Welsh as address a personalised invitation to Gareth Davies which his opposite number accepted with eagerness and raced 60 metres towards the left corner, maintaining his form sufficiently to prevent the covering Chris Harris from getting to him before it was too late.

Regardless of the impact on the Scottish psyche, it was the worst thing that could have happened in terms of releasing the hosts from any doubts they had brought into the campaign, having suffered a team full of injuries ahead of it.

They came close to a splendid second when further generosity was accepted as a huge gap was left for Aaron Shingler to burst into, his front five providing excellent support as both Corey Hill and Rob Evans got involved before skipper Alun Wyn Jones powered in close and attempted to give what should have been a scoring pass to Steff Evans. It was not perfectly delivered but the little winger should still have gathered it with the line at his mercy.

Not that it mattered since, after Scotland had conceded a free-kick at a scrum in their own 22 to allow Wales a set-piece of their own, the hosts were thrusting at the line again. This time, after Rhys Patchell made an initial dart to the left to be stopped just short, they capitalised as the ball was shifted right where Leigh Halfpenny showed the commitment of a high-class player who was fed up of hearing about how long it had been since he scored a try, in carrying the last tackler with him as he registered his first score in 38 matches.

Scotland’s response was to try ever harder to force the game, their error count duly increasing as the experimental-looking back line failed to justify what had always seemed an unnecessary risk of bringing Huw Jones infield from his outside centre slot from which he had rattled in seven tries in his first 11 Tests. This was to accommodate Chris Harris and Byron McGuigan, two players who are far from novices, but who have little experience of this type of environment.

The Scots did get into a position that gave them a chance to claim the score that might have changed the dynamics of the game before the break when Jones followed up his own chip by wrapping up Halfpenny and carrying him over his own line to earn Scotland a five-metre scrum. But that opportunity was wasted when Price threw a pass that Harris could not take, his attention focused on the tacklers bearing down on him.

That made it all the more important that Scotland got the opening score of the second period, but John Barclay was twice penalised for ruck offences, the second of those decisions looking harsh, but the first of them the more important as he scrabbled for the ball when he appeared to be grounded under his own posts. Halfpenny showed no mercy on his Scarlets team-mate as he knocked both over and while the cavalry was then sent on in the shape of ex-Scotland skipper Greig Laidlaw and Glasgow Warriors captain Ryan Wilson, along with Jamie Bhatti, it was, at 20-0 down, a futile gesture.

Wales then set about earning a bonus point and duly claimed it with Halfpenny claiming his second try as the ball was shifted quickly right, Evans neatly flicking it into the full-back’s path, then rounding things off with a try of his own after Finn Russell had a pass intercepted close to halfway, allowing Wales to transfer the ball from their right flank to the opposite wing as they again exposed Scotland out wide.

Such was Scotland’s performance that their solitary score was almost unjust, replacement Pete Horne picking the ball up at a close range ruck to amble over on the right.

Scorers, Wales – Tries: G Davies, Halfpenny 2, Evans.

Cons: Halfpenny 4. Pens: Halfpenny 2.

Scotland: Try: Horne. Con: Russell.

Referee: P Gauzere. Attendance: 74,169