IN the final instalment of our Six Nations guide to each of the competing squads, Iain Morrison reads the runes for a Wales outfit decimated by retirements and injury, and assesses a Scotland side who must prove that their World Cup no-show is not the beginning of the end for this generation of players.
- Coach: Gats….for his 17th Six Nations campaign!
- Captain: In the absence of Jac Morgan, the 21-year-old lock Dafydd Jenkins takes the armband. Wales’ second youngest skipper after Gareth Edwards. Llongyfarchiadau mawr!
- Welcome to the circus: Gatland’s squad has five uncapped players including the breakaway trio of Alex Mann, Mackenzie Martin and Evan Lloyd. Full-back Cameron Winnett from Cardiff and Bath prop Archie Griffin are also named. A further 11 squad players have less than 10 caps to their name.
- Missing the action: Are you sitting comfortably? Jac Morgan, Dewi Lake, Chris Tshiunza, Taulupe Faletau and Callum Sheedy are injured. Dan Bigger, Justin Tipuric, AWJ and Leigh Halfpenny have retired. Thomas Francis, Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe moved abroad (Anscombe subsequently returned from Japan and is said to be training with Wales despite having no contract/club). Meanwhile Louis Rees-Zamit is chasing the dream/loot/limelight – delete as you see fit – across the pond. Centre Joe Hawkins plays for Exeter so has rendered himself ineligible. And finally, for reasons only he knows, Cardiff-born winger Immanuel Weyi-Waboso opted to join an improving England squad over a shambolic Welsh one, the rascal!
- Reasons to be cheerful: “We can absolutely win this tournament,” said Warren Gatland, although he may have been trying to persuade himself as much as anyone else? I am an honorary member of a Welsh WhatsApp group who are already bracing themselves for the Wooden Spoon so at least this squad is not burdened with excess expectations. Moreover, Wales boast a very handy combo in the row (Jenkins plus Will Rowlands of Racing) and young guns like Mackenzie Martin and Kieron Williams could yet surprise us if given a chance. Ryan Elias is considered by many to be a better hooker than Dewi Lake and, finally, having Scotland first up at home does nothing to disturb the Welsh players’ sleep given the Scots’ appalling record in Cardiff.
- Don’t mention: The recent results. Wales did well to best Fiji at RWC but they have finished fifth in three of the last four Championship seasons so it will be Gatland’s finest hour if they end up higher than that given the scratch squad he has at his disposal. In addition, the once-mighty Scarlets (along with Perpignan) were one of the only teams to finish with nil points in the pool stages of European competition, while the Ospreys are the only Welsh region in the top half of the URC.
- Making his mark: If anyone can whip this ragtag mob into some semblance of order you suspect that Warren Gatland is that man but it’s still a mountain to climb. He will earn his pay this season and some, while Jenkins faces a baptism of fire as captain.
- Recent record: 5th in 2020, 1st, 5th and 5th.
- Best guess? Wales are in some disarray, bereft of several experienced players while the next generation are still bedding in. About 14 years back, when Dan Parks was playing, I speculated that Wales’ 10th choice fly-half would get a start for Scotland. Now their first choice 10 would struggle to get a place on the bench for either of Scotland’s pro-teams. Sam Costelow may surprise us but little that he has done to date suggests that he is a Test fly-half in the making. I suspect Wales will need to beat Italy in the final round to avoid the ‘Spoon’.
- Coach: Gregor Townsend…now in his 8th season
- Captains: Finn Russell and Rory Darge (who is struggling to make the opening game)
- Welcome to the circus: Three of the four new faces are, surprise, surprise, from outside Scotland (only 18 out of 39 players in the squad came through Scottish rugby … just saying!). So Saints’ Elliot Millar-Mills and Exeter’s former England prop Alex Hepburn are there to help shore up the Scottish scrum. Sale’s Arron Reed has pace to burn as does the promising Harry Patterson from Edinburgh! (Huzzah!)
- Missing in action: Things don’t look too good for Jamie Richie right now and he must wonder what the heck has changed in the four months since RWC’23; unless Townsend has belatedly realised that his number 6 is really a 7? Bucking the trend, not one Scot has retired post World Cup, although you suspect several might like to. Grant Gilchrist is suspended and Darcy Graham injured for Cardiff, while Lions trio, Hamish Watson, Chris Harris and Rory Sutherland were all stamped ‘surplus stock’.
- Reasons to be cheerful: Scotland are competitive against most teams most of the time. This was not always the case, for younger readers out there. They have a backline that can challenge the best defenses with the little-n-large wing combo offering a contrasting but potent threat in the wide channels. With the wind in their sails, Scotland are a joy to watch and, while he isn’t currently in the national squad, Glasgow’s Max Williamson looks the part if/when big Richie ever quits.
- Don’t mention: Ireland. With a record that reads, played 11, lost 10, won 1, if Townsend never had to face the Irish again it would come too soon. They contributed to Scotland’s demise in RWC’19 and, again, in RWC’23. I lost a fiver that day. Not because I thought Scotland would win but because I thought, with backs to the wall, they would take the fight to Ireland, at least make a game of it. I was wrong. It was over by half time. The two sides meet in Dublin on the final weekend of the championship and Scotland will lose again unless they beef up their forward pack with equal injections of muscle and mischief.
- Making his mark: Some big lummock to fill the number six shirt and bring some much needed ballast/balance to the backrow. Please. My choice would be Luke Crosbie but Townsend cannot continue with two (or even three) openside flankers in the back row and expect to compete with the power packs out there.
- Recent results: 4th in 2020, 4th, 4th and 3rd!
- Our best guess: Much is resting on the crucial opening weekend when Scotland not only have to win in Cardiff for the first time in 22 years, they must do so with something to spare. At full strength, this Wales’ squad would be a little bit ordinary during this rebuilding phase, but in addition they are missing several key players including their twin RWC skippers. A good win in Wales sets Scotland up nicely for the challenge posed by France and England at home. A scratchy win or, heaven forbid, a loss in Cardiff and we could be looking to Rome in the fourth round for some sort of salvation.