TODAY’S two teams have both won two of their three matches and both are still in with a shout in this championship.
At least one country will have fallen by the wayside at the close of play, possibly both of them.
There are similarities all over the paddock from the two world-class front rows cracking heads up front to the exciting back three, with all six players capable of getting the crowd on their feet. Both sides have scored six tries, five conversions and eight penalties in their three matches to date. Both teams have won 33 lineouts, kicked from hand 86 times and made 12 clean breaks.
So far, so bizarre but that is where the likeness ends. Wales won a Grand Slam last season, Scotland were whitewashed and while the home side have unearthed their fighting spirit under interim coach Scott Johnson, it is the visitors who will rightly start as favourites today. Johnson likes to talk about the back row and the two centres as a unit. He declares of those five players, “they make up 33 per cent of the team and they produce 50 per cent of the output”. If he’s right, then Scotland are in trouble.
One year ago Sam Warburton was all but pencilled in as the Lions’ captain and now he’s restored to the Welsh back row the former skipper has a point to prove. He may have been below his best but Warburton is a natural openside with proper support from his back row brethren.
By his own estimation Toby Faletau has been operating at 50 per cent of capacity, so heaven help us if the Welsh No 8 hits his stride this afternoon while Ryan Jones is a Trojan, equally happy doing his defensive duties or carrying the ball in hand.
Against them the Scots picked a defensive trio because Kelly Brown and Rob Harley are both there to knock the opposition over. They do it very well but it is essentially damage limitation; rugby’s equivalent of packing a football team’s midfield with five stoppers.
OK, four stoppers and Johnnie Beattie, who is pretty much on his own as a carrier, someone to take the fight to the men in red. By my reckoning the Scots managed just two attacking phases against Ireland before turning the ball over or making an error. Two! They have improved hand over fist in slowing down the opposition recycling at the breakdown, but the Scots still have plenty to learn when protecting their own ball on the charge.
Ryan Wilson is another ball carrier and had Johnson given the Glasgow man a start it would have been a bold statement of intent. Instead Wilson is on the bench and hoping that the game is still there to be won when he is thrown into the action.
With the weather looking filthy both teams will attempt to bring their strike runners into the game with the minimum number of passes to reduce the risk of making a mistake. Expect to see all four wingers popping up in midfield, running angles off ten and twelve while the two full-backs, Halfpenny and Stuart Hogg, probe the blindside. The Scot has been the stand-out runner in broken play in this tournament but Halfpenny is peerless under the high ball and both men will doubtless be tested in what will be testing conditions.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the team sheet, Scotland’s front row deserve some sort of medal. They earned the winning penalty against Australia in Newcastle. They won a penalty try against Fiji. They creaked against England but bounced back to shade the tight exchanges against Italy before humbling the Irish. At one point in the first half the straight- arm penalties earned by the big men seemed like the only thing preventing Ireland from completely overrunning the thin blue line.
Wales are a different prospect and even coach Massimo Cuttitta would probably accept parity at the set scrum while Wales’ first choice props Adam Jones and Paul James are on the field. However, if the Scots can outlast that duo they should make hay when the much less experienced reserves come on to the field. Wales won’t want to risk making the change until they believe the match is won.
For all the similarities between today’s two sides there are some glaring differences and the fact that Scotland have conceded 47 penalties while Wales have given up 27 is a reflection of the possession statistics where the Scots simply have to improve. In Dan Bigger, Wales possess a goal-kicker every bit as accurate as Greig Laidlaw and the Welshman is probably ten or 15 yards longer off the tee. Wales won’t be hoofing too many kickable penalties into touch as Ireland did.
On current form the visitors should win by a couple of scores but, if the Scots can produce another improved performance, one that blends the best of their attacking verve with the doughty defence of the last two outings, then this match will still be up for grabs inside the final twenty.