There was a lot of nonsense before the Wales-England match in Cardiff – special effects as if in the trailer for a movie and then the childish stand-off in the tunnel. While Clive Woodward and Jeremy Guscott, as two of the BBC pundits panel seemed quite happy about it all, Jonathan Davies sensibly said it was silly and they should just get on with the game.
Davies still irritates quite a number of viewers. They accuse him of one-eyed pro-Wales bias although, actually, he is often severely critical of the style in which Warren Gatland’s team plays. In any case, since he is always outnumbered by Englishmen – three to one if you include John Inverdale – he has to keep his end up. I like him because he is the most astute technical analyst employed by the BBC.
As a player, Davies was the last Welsh number 10 who came off the production line of Max Boyce’s stand-off factory: Cliff Morgan, David Watkins, Barry John, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies, all light-footed magicians. The present incumbent, Dan Biggar, is a very fine player and I’m surprised it took Warren Gatland so long to identify him as the best stand-off available to him. But he doesn’t play in the style of the great tradition, any more than Niall Jenkins did. Perhaps nobody could in these days of blanket defences. All the more reason to cherish the memory of the magicians who, like Barry John, could tell their forwards: “Just give me the ball and keep out of my way”.
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It is a bit strange to think that, at Murrayfield tomorrow, Scotland will have a young stand-off eager to make things happen, while Wales will have an excellent linker and kicker who plays more in the English style of Rob Andrew and Jonny Wilkinson.
Moreover, Biggar will be leading a three-quarter line that, like the French one last week, serves as a battering-ram rather than a rapier.
Only Liam Williams, brought in on the wing in place of George North, who suffered concussion against England, plays in what we think of as the traditional Welsh style exemplified in the now somewhat distant past by the great Gerald Davies and, more recently, by that will o’ the wisp Shane Williams, while Scotland, in the youthful person of Mark Bennett, have a player as twinkle-toed as Gerald and Shane.
Sam Warburton, the respected Welsh captain, has said that, after the Cardiff game, losing isn’t an option for Wales tomorrow. This is an odd way to put it – and he may of course have been misquoted – because I doubt if any team goes into an international regarding defeat as an “option” – that is, something you might choose.
Nevertheless, Warburton’s words underline the importance of this game for the Welsh. Lose to Scotland and their Six Nations season is in ruins. Win and they may still, if other results favour them, have a chance of the title.
Of course, precisely the same may be said of Scotland, the difference being that, sadly, for years now, we have become quite accustomed to finding our season ruined after two matches, all that is left to us being the need to avoid collecting the wooden spoon.
One has the feeling that this year is a bit different. Defeat in Paris was disappointing, but losing the first match away from home in a year when we have three games at BT Murrayfield shouldn’t dampen either optimism or determination.
Happily, the injury toll after Paris is less than had been feared. The pack is capable of holding its own in the set scrum, where the Welsh tighthead, Samson Lee, had a difficult game against England. However, like North, Lee suffered a concussion and has been replaced by Aaron Jarvis for tomorrow.
Of course, any predictions about what may happen in this part of the game are futile. One of the features of the French match was that there were very few scrums – only seven, I think.
Given the number of scrums that end in a penalty, we certainly want to avoid handling errors in our own half. Indeed, the outcome of the match may well be decided by our ability to reduce the penalty count. Leigh Halfpenny is the best goal-kicker in the Six Nations, and your chances of beating Wales are much improved if you deny him shots at goal. Aside from scrum offences, most penalties come at the breakdown, either for the tackler not rolling away or the ball-carrier not releasing in time. Tacklers are always tempted to hang around just a little longer to slow up the opposition’s recycling of the ball, but it’s usually better to let them have it than concede a penalty. The ball-carrier will always tend to hold on if support is slow in arriving. Blair Cowan came in for some criticism for conceding France’s first penalty in the second minute of the game, but it seemed to me that, when he went down on the ball after Jonny Gray’s line-out steal, support was slow in arriving.
It’s too long since we’ve beaten Wales, but then it is also some time since the teams seemed as evenly matched as they do this year. Moreover, though it is likely that the Welsh will play better, and with more enterprise, than they did against England, one has the feeling that Scotland have more scope for improvement than Wales. The Welsh XV, packed with Lions, may nevertheless have arrived on a plateau. Certainly there are many in Wales who have been muttering that Gatland has taken them as far as he is capable of taking them.
In contrast, Scotland, driven on by their new coach Vern Cotter, are climbing the mountain. They may just manage to get a step higher tomorrow and dislodge Wales in the process.