WALES v SCOTLAND, PRINCIPALITY STADIUM IN CARDIFF, SATURDAY 3RD FEBRUARY 2018.
Kick-off 2.15pm. Live on BBC, S4C, FR2, TV3, DMAX, NBC.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny; Josh Adams, Scott Williams, Hadleigh Parkes, Steff Evans; Rhys Patchell, Gareth Davies; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones©, Aaron Shingler, Josh Navidi, Ross Moriarty. Substitutes: Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Tomas Francis, Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, Aled Davies, Gareth Anscombe, Owen Watkin.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Chris Harris, Huw Jones, Byron McGuigan; Finn Russell, Ali Price; Gordon Reid, Stuart McInally, Jon Welsh, Jonny Gray, Ben Toolis, John Barclay©, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson. Substitutes: Scott Lawson, Jamie Bhatti, Murray McCallum, Grant Gilchrist, Ryan Wilson, Grieg Laidlaw, Peter Horne, Sean Maitland.
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (France)
SCOTLAND, as has been pointed out a number of times this week, have not won in Cardiff since 2002, but they come into the tournament high on morale after pushing New Zealand all the way and hammering Australia during November.
Wales showed glimpses of their full potential during the Autumn without managing to click into top gear, and are missing a raft of their most prominent players coming into this tournament, including captain Sam Warburton, number eight colossus Taulupe Faletau, Lions player of the series Jonathan Davies (centre), fellow Lions star Liam Williams, stand-off Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland, scrum-half Rhys Webb and second-row Jake Ball. Winger George North has also returned to club duty with Northampton Saints as he struggles to get past a knee injury.
It is a measure of the often-underestimated strength in depth of Welsh rugby that despite all these absentees, Warren Gatland has still managed to pull together a team which, on paper, looks a match for any team in this competition – with proven campaigners like Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Ross Moriarty providing the core, while Josh Adams of Worcester Warriors surrounded by a free-wheeling Scarlets backline has the potential to light up any match. However, the decision to select a battler in Josh Navidi at openside flanker ahead of two outstanding ball players in Justin Tipuric or James Davies suggests that Gatland is not fully committed to the Scarlets philosophy.
Scotland have not had their problems to seek on the injury front, either. The front-row has been a particular problem with effectively three players who could easily have started ahead of those actually picked unavailable in each position. The Scottish coaching team have been stressing all week that they are looking forward to seeing Jon Welsh, Stuart McInally and Gordon Reid (followed by Murray MacCallum, Scott Lawson and Jamie Bhatti later in the match) proving their doubters wrong – but there is a big difference between brave talk before the event and delivering at the moment of truth, and the reality is that nobody quite knows how the Scottish scrum is going to shape up.
If it all goes terribly wrong at set-piece then all is not lost. Stuart Hogg has returned from his hip-flexor injury at full-back and if he, along with Finn Russell, Ali Price and Huw Jones are on song then they could run riot on even the most meagre of rations.
There was the usual boring soap opera drama this week about whether the roof at the Millennium Stadium should be open or closed – with both camps suggesting that the other was being disingenuous – before it was eventually agreed on Friday morning that the sky should be closed off in the Principality Stadium, cutting out the predicted heavy rain. This should suit the free-wheeling style of play Scotland have championed under Townsend; but with eight players in their starting team experiencing the Cardiff cauldron for the first time, it will be interesting to see how the visitors cope with the deafening noise which will reverberate around the closed chamber.
WHAT THEY SAID –
Scotland captain John Barclay on the intimidating atmosphere at the Principality Stadium –
“We’ve played in bigger. Perhaps it’s easy for me to say because I’ve played there, but most of the guys have played in big stadiums across the world. Once we get going most of the guys are going to be motivated by the fact that it’s a big occasion. We’ll get out there a bit before the game and soak up the atmosphere, and our hotel’s not far from the ground. The Principality Stadium is one of those places you just want to play at, and I’ve been lucky enough to play there a couple of times. I get to play there with Scarlets once a year and it’s one of those places that when I leave I hope I get to play there again.”
Wales coach Warren Gatland on Scotland’s missing front-row players –
“You have to be smart. If there is a vulnerability you have to exploit it. We will be looking to potentially do that, but you have to be positive in the way you play.
“Plan one might be to target a weakness, but when someone steps in because of an injury you tend to work a bit harder in that area because as a coach you know the opposition might target you. If Scotland’s scrum is competitive, you will see a great game of rugby because both teams are positive.”
Scotland defence coach Matt Taylor on Scotland reining in the sense of adventure they showed in the Autumn –
“We’ve got our own style of play in how we want to play the game in attack and defence. We’re not going to change because that was the autumn and now we’re in the Six Nations. We want to play with the ball in hand. We want it to be up-tempo, quick both in attack and defence. That’s the type of game that we feel is going to benefit us. We’ll play that in the Six Nations or whenever we play.
“Gregor is a very astute coach. He’s been immersed in Scottish rugby for a long time as a player and now as a coach.
“The work he did in Glasgow, and now with the national team, is going well. We’ve always got to be improving and pushing ourselves. We had a good result in the autumn – but we need to push on. We’ve had a really good preparation, we’ve trained at tempo, pushed the players physically and mentally. Hopefully the benefits will come through tomorrow.”
“If we play to our ability and execute really well, we’re up there with the best in the world – as we showed in the autumn. We’re really confident in where we are as a nation. If we do our best in every test, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to do well in this tournament.”
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones on Scotland having the favourites tag –
“On the back of last year I think that would be fair. But I think sometimes it’s better to be the hunter rather than the hunted. We’ve been there or thereabouts in the past. People say it’s an advantage being at home with a closed roof but once we are out there we cross the white line and it’s 15 on 15. If we are the underdogs then we’ll take that tag but it’s about the 80 minutes.”
“We are very conscious of the brand of rugby they are playing at the minute, and their evolution over the last 18 months. There is utmost respect. They have a bag of tricks that I am sure they may dip into at some point of the game as well.”
“We are a passionate country who love our rugby. We try to put that out there in the way that we play as Scotland have done in the past few years particularly with the brand of rugby they are playing. It’s going to be a great spectacle and people are probably expecting a try fest. It will be interesting to see how we go.”
THREE KEY CLASHES
Josh Adams versus Byron McGuigan
The Welshman is currently top try scorer in the English Aviva Premiership, having crossed the chalk nine times for Worcester Warriors, while his opposite number in blue is one score behind with eight tries for Sale Sharks in the campaign so far. Adams is an elusive broken-field runner, while McGuigan tends to make his mark charging in straight lines or chasing down kicks ahead. As Adams is usually deployed on the left wing, the pair have never played directly opposite each other. McGuigan made a huge impact with two tries and several impressive interjections in his first start for Scotland against Australia last time out, while Adams is making his debut – it could end up being a cracking tussle between the new kids on the block.
Aaron Shingler v John Barclay
Two club-mates facing up to each other. It is astonishing to think that Barclay was an international outcast up until just before the last World Cup after not seeing eye-to-eye with interim head coach – and current SRU director of rugby – Scott Johnson. He has been in the form of his life since returning to the Scotland fold and rose to the captaincy after injury and the Lions tour deprived the team of Greig Laidlaw. He was heroic against New Zealand in November. His rugby intelligence and technique at the break-down makes him a vital cog in an unorthodox back-row which doesn’t feature a bulldozer ball carrier. He will have a job on his hands countering Shingler’s athleticism at the line-out and dynamism with the ball in hand.
Rob Evans v Jon Welsh
Let’s be honest, it is about survival for the Scottish scrum. With WP Nel, Zander Fagerson and Simon Berghan all out injured, Jon Welsh gets an opportunity to resurrect his international career by anchoring the visiting set-piece against the one area where Wales are not severely depleted. Evans was a revelation in the autumn as Wales embraced a more ambitious passing game, and his scrummahing in recent European encounters against Bath and Toulon demonstrates that he is not just a show pony in the number one jersey. Former loose-head Welsh says his scrummaging at tight-head has improved immeasurably through the rigours of operating for Newcastle Falcons in the Aviva Premiership, but Evans will be under strict instruction to examine just how true that is.
SCOTLAND’S RECORD AGAINST WALES
Played 122 – Won 49 – Drawn 3 – Lost 70
2 February 1924: Scotland 24 Australia 15
13 June 2014: Wales 51 Scotland 3
Six most recent matches
12 February 2012: Wales 13 Scotland 27
9 March 2013: Scotland 18 Wales 28
15 March 2014: Wales 51 Scotland 3
15 February 2015: Scotland 23 Wales 26
13 February 2016: Wales 23 Scotland 27
25 February 2017: Scotland 29 Wales 13
LAST TIME OUT
Scotland achieved a first win over Wales in 10 years at Murrayfield during the last Six Nations by scoring 20 unanswered points in the second half to secure a 29-13 win. That teed them up for a crack at the Triple Crown with a trip to Twickenham in their next outing, and we all know what happened there.
Their victory over Wales was all the more remarkable because it was achieved in the aftermath of a demoralising defeat away to France which had cost them their talismanic captain Greig Laidlaw, but after struggling through the first half (during which some stout defending by the home team did well to keep the deficit to just four points) they came alive in the second spell with wingers Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser lighting up Murrayfield with a try apiece. Finn Russell converted both and added five penalties.
Wales kept on battling to the end but a lack of accuracy meant they couldn’t make any headway into Scotland’s well-deserved 29-13 lead.
Alex Dunbar (concussed) and Tim Visser (not selected) are the only starting backs from that game not in the team this weekend. Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson and Richie Gray are all out injured from last year’s forward pack, while John Hardie is only just back from a three –month suspension for alleged cocaine use and Ryan Wilson is on the bench.
As for Wales, eight of the team that started that match are currenly injured, while Justin Tipuric is on the bench. Leigh Halfpenny, Scott Williams, Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones and Ross Moriarty are the only survivors.
Rob Howley was in charge of Wales at that time – while Gatland was on sabbatical preparing for the upcoming Lions tour – but now the main man is back, there will be a big appetite to right a few perceived wrongs.