I KNOW, I know, 1982 is a long, long time ago, an age when dinosaurs roamed the earth and most of them played rugby at weekends. Bear with me here because back in 1982 an highly talented Scotland side traveled to Cardiff in the Five Nations having failed to win a match there in 20 years, so some obvious parallels with Saturday’s shindig.
Scotland not only won 42 years ago, they annihilated Wales, becoming the first team to ever score five tries against them at the Cardiff Arms Park. Wales managed one touchdown that day, thanks to the late Eddie Butler, much loved commentator and Wales’ skipper on the day. The final score of 18-34 would, in other words about as comprehensive an away win as it’s possible to imagine and scoring was lower back then in any case, making any direct comparison with today’s results tricky.
Ironically the try-fest was kick started by winger Roger Baird, a man who played 27 times for Scotland but famously never scored a try in any of them; like I said, different days. With Wales in the ascendancy, Baird fielded a chip kick from Welsh No 10 Gareth Davies deep inside the Scotland 22 and the Kelso man gambled, running from deep, tearing up the left touchline. The ball went to Iain Paxton and Alan Tomes before Jim Calder dived over for a brilliant score.
It was a pivotal moment because that try had much the same effect as kissing Snow White, the Cardiff curse was lifted and Scotland were able to translate their superiority onto the scoreboard; not something we have always managed in the Welsh capital. Are there any lessons from that day that Baird would like to pass onto the current generation of Scottish players?
“I am not sure that there is anything an amateur player can tell a professional about the game,” Baird replies with habitual modesty. “I suppose that if I were to say anything I would tell them to have a go, they have a blank sheet of paper. The boys have nothing to fear on Saturday despite our record down there because there have been plenty of games we should have won!
“This Scotland side has some fantastic talents, we just need to go down there and be positive. Cardiff is a great place to play and a great place to silence the crowd. 20 years (without a win) meant bugger all to us on the day.
“I remember at half-time in 1982 we were all getting a bit cocky and Jim Renwick piped up and told us all to get a grip. He said he had 40 caps for Scotland and he had yet to win away from home!
“So we have been through tough times in the past but I am really excited about this season. I think we can surprise a few people because this squad has the X-factor. Scotland has a good chance in the Six Nations. I am quietly confident”
I share his confidence about Cardiff. This Scotland team are 15-20 points better than Wales, provided they play somewhere close to their potential and keep 15 players on the field.
Wales are in disarray with umpteen players unavailable and Gatland’s squad is further undermined by two late call-offs. Will Rowlands’ wife gave birth two weeks ago but complications mean the big lock has not yet returned to the national squad while George North, so often Scotland’s Nemesis, is injured.
Wales field 413 caps in the starting XV against 540 for the visitors although the bench evens things up a little (Wales 111 caps, Scotland 96, including two uncapped props). We can expect Zander Fagerson and Pierre Schoeman to go deep; they probably won’t come off at all if it’s nip and tuck in the final quarter.
Scotland will miss Blair Kinghorn especially but also Rory Darge and Darcy Graham. This squad is broadly competent and occasionally inspired, sixth in the World Rugby rankings against Wales in eighth place and Gatland’s side are only that high because they enjoyed a RWC’23 run where rankings points are doubled.
Scotland have chinks in their armour; the pool of props is more of a puddle, one lock lacks the athleticism of his youth, the other is a middleweight in a heavyweight role, and there remains a power shortage in the back-row but it is not obvious that Wales has the weapons to take advantage of these shortcoming.
They have home advantage with the roof now shut, which helps build the atmosphere but at least ensures a dry ball for Scotland’s back line to play with.
Only last week Jonathan Humphreys, once of this parish, was telling the Welsh media how horrible it was for any opponents to play at the Principality Stadium. But a simple glance at their recent results suggests otherwise. The Principality can be intimidating, sure enough, but only when Wales are going well and this side is hobbling before the whistle has even sounded.
Georgia and Italy like the venue well enough because both teams won there in 2022. Moreover, Wales have won exactly two of their last ten Tests there (ignoring the recent Barbarians game). So, not exactly an impregnable fortress, I think we can agree.
Scotland have the best tackle completion rate of any team in three of the last four Championships, including 2023 when they managed a stellar 92%. But the lineout remains an issue, with the second worst completion stats (85%) last season. This could be an issue except that Wales were (very marginally) worse.
In the last two seasons, Finn Russell has assisted more line-breaks than any other tier one player and the Scottish 10 also has 15 try assists over the same period, equal with Antione Dupont, so he keeps good company.
Meanwhile. Duhan van der Merwe claimed 35 defenders beaten in 2023’s Championship, up from 31 in 2022, both new Six Nations records, beating Brian O’Driscoll who held the top spot for over 20 years! (Thanks to theanalyst.com). Can someone please tell the big Saffa that he is allowed to leave his wing?
On the downside, Scotland allow the fastest ruck times against them (3.2 seconds) suggesting that they are told to pick their moments to compete at the breakdown with the emphasis on getting bodies on their feet and into the defensive line. But, again, it’s uncertain whether the current Welsh backline can exploit the quick-phase ball that they can expect to receive on Saturday?
The twin full-backs, Kyle Rowe and Cameron Winnett, boast one cap between them, a 12 minute appearance off the bench for the Scot against Argentina. Both men will be tested on the day but this result should not be decided by a nervy full-back on debut. It should come down to the Scottish pack.
Wales conceded 19 tries in the 2023 Championship, nine of which came directly from the opposition line-out. If Scotland get their maul going they will score tries. If Scotland’s big men deliver quick phase ball, their backline has too many threats not to score tries. If the Scottish forwards only get parity the visitors should still have enough nous to get over the line. Only if the Welsh forwards boss the show has the home team any chance of victory.
And, yes, Wales are playing at home, which is absolutely crucial, as everyone acknowledges but only until it simply doesn’t matter any more. Just ask Roger Baird.
Scotland should win by 15 points. More if they score early.