IN SCOTTISH rugby’s recent history the Millennium Stadium looms large and it is poised to play another key part in the colourful heritage of games against Wales.
This was where Gordon Bulloch scored two tries and Scotland claimed a famous win against a burgeoning Welsh side in 2002. It was where Gregor Townsend and Glenn Metcalfe modelled new white boots and slipped about a bit a year later in a World Cup warm-up.
It was the stage upon which Matt Williams launched a new era for the national side by introducing Chris Cusiter, Allister Hogg, Tom Philip and Dan Parks to Test rugby, but balanced that positive step by asking his players to play in all sorts of patterns they did not understand.
Scott Murray was sent off here in 2006 for lashing out with his foot, which certainly seemed a harsh call to the thousands of Scots in the stands. Then we had Scotland’s own particularly violent episode of ‘Accident and Emergency’ in 2010 when Thom Evans’ promising career was brought to an abrupt halt by an awkward clash with Lee Byrne, and a subsequent spinal injury, and Chris Paterson and Rory Lamont joined him in the university hospital with a split kidney and torn ankle ligaments respectively.
There has been no other match in my two decades or so of covering Test matches around the world to have created such an intense and memorable finale as Wales fought back from being 24-14 down to level the scores in the final minute, and then ran the ball like a team of dervishes on the final play and duly earned the reward of a match-winning try by none other than Shane Williams.
No matter how far apart the teams might seem in a decade of Welsh revival and Scottish struggle most encounters have remained close. Scotland have only won once here, in 2002, but the biggest margin of defeat in the Six Nations was 15 points – Wales have won by more at Murrayfield – and there have always been tries. In 14 meetings between the sides since the championship became six in 2000 a total of 56 tries have been scored, most by Wales admittedly, and only one match – a 21-9 Scotland win in 2007 – finished without someone crossing the whitewash.
Scotland have not scored a try in their last three games with the Welsh, however, and that is something that coach Scott Johnson wants to see corrected this afternoon. His team has shown what he terms “glimpses” of their ability in this tournament, but after another harrowing start with defeat in Ireland and at home to England they have made small steps on the recovery road.
Beating Italy with a last-gasp drop-goal from Duncan Weir lifted confidence and that was evident in the way the team took on a disjointed French side, but still they lacked the nous to close it out and paid the price by losing a Test they deserved to win. Asked at yesterday’s captain’s run what improvement he would like to see today, Johnson said it would be to learn that lesson of how to make an opponent suffer when in command.
“We still need to learn when and how to squeeze a team and not release that pressure, and we have not got that balance right as a team. We have spoken about that during the week. When they kicked the goal last week there were seven minutes on the clock and we tried to play a big play. Sometimes you need to be a bit patient. We want to play attractive rugby and we think we possess the skill set to do it but there are still times in games where you have to say ‘okay, cut our losses and get out of town’.
“It is that balancing act. If we get a bit more of knowing when to put the foot down and when to take it off, that would lead to an improved performance.
“But there has been some good stuff too. I go back to the first half against Ireland when we were superb. We played most of the rugby but didn’t get across the line and then we got a couple of injuries.
“The midfield has stayed the same and so you see when we have got the same personnel and they’re growing, so does the performance. Over the last couple of weeks we have definitely seen it, definitely.
“There is a lot of good in this team, but there are growing pains as you go along and I am after a bit of consistency.”
Of course, Johnson added to the inconsistency in selection by dropping Kelly Brown for debutant Chris Fusaro and switching around second rows, only last week returning to his British and Irish Lion Richie Gray, but while he has not lost many players to injury, the ones who have fallen – Sean Maitland, Sean Lamont, Tommy Seymour and Johnnie Beattie – have been among the best performers.
Wales coach Warren Gatland has followed up on a threat to drop players under-performing, hooker Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones, the tighthead prop, being replaced after poor tackle counts against the English, and Rhys Priestland losing his place to Dan Biggar for similarly falling off aspects of his game. Mike Phillips comes in for the injured Rhys Webb and the more languid full-back Liam Williams replaces Leigh halfpenny, who suffered a dislocated shoulder at Twickenham, while 31-year-old 6ft 9in lock Luke Charteris is back for Jake Ball in the pack.
That front five is a good target for a Scottish quintet that has started to grow together, and it is vital that they make real inroads here. Take control at the scrum and lineout and Scotland will reduce the ability of Wales’ world-class back row of Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau to impose themselves, and the back division to line up Scots for car-crash-type collisions.
The Welsh back line is famously huge but they have appeared quite one-dimensional in this tournament and opponents seem to have sussed how to stop them. If defenders can bring them down swiftly, they struggle like anyone else to build momentum through the phases, but stopping these men mountains requires courage and an ability to put bodies on the line time and time again.
Wales will kick deep and ask questions of the Scotland back three, notably newcomer Dougie Fife, who spent long spells yesterday fielding kicks from coach Duncan Hodge all over the back-field.
The Millennium Stadium has proven to be a tough place for Scotland to win over the past decade, but they have come close and with Wales faltering this will provide an intriguing indicator as to how far Scotland have developed under Johnson – whose greatest day came here in 2005 when, as part of the Wales coaching team, he helped inspire many of the players involved today to a Grand Slam.
He again deflected questions about this being his last game in charge, or of what legacy he might leave, but concluded that he was excited at returning to the stadium with a side he hopes can blossom in a similar manner to the one they face.
“I had an absolute ball in my time in Wales, good bad and ugly,” he added.
“There are so many things I owe this country for that I will never forget it.
“Now I am on a different journey with Scotland and will feel the same when I have finished there. Good passionate rugby people; I like that.”
“This is a cauldron. There is nothing like in the world and if they get a win on the back of it, it will bring a pretty good injection of confidence. But it’s not about me. They are the warriors. I am the worrier!”
15 Liam Williams
14 Alex Cuthbert
13 Johathan Davies
12 Jamie Roberts
11 George North
10 Dan Biggar
9 Mike Phillips
1 Gethin Jenkins
2 Ken Owens
3 Rhodri Jones
4 Luke Charteris
5 Alun Wyn Jones
6 Dan Lydiate
8 Sam Warburton
7 T Faletau
16 Richard Hibbard
17 Paul James
18 Adam Jones
19 Jake Ball
20 Justin Name
21 Rhodri Williams
22 Rhys Priestland
23 James Hook
15 Stuart Hogg
14 Dougie Fife
13 Alex Dunbar
12 Max Scott
11 Max Evans
10 Duncan Weir
9 Greig Laidlaw
1 Ryan Grant
2 Scott Lawson
3 Geoff Cross
4 Richie Gray
5 Jim Hamilton
6 Ryan Wilson
8 Kelly Brown
7 David Denton
16 Ross Ford
17 Alasdair Dickinson
18 Euan Murray
19 Tim Swinson
20 Alasdair Strokosch
21 Chris Cusiter
22 Duncan Taylor
23 Jack Cuthbert