IT IS time for the last hurrah. It’s “Super Saturday” and the final weekend of the 2014 RBS Six Nations is upon us and, for us, a trip to one of the finest rugby stadiums on the planet.
My first visit to Millennium Stadium was in 2002 for my Papa, Bill McLaren’s, final international commentary, calling the action between Wales and Scotland – the same fixture he had begun with 50 years previously. As a family we went en masse for the special occasion. One of Papa’s most endearing features (and there were many) was his humility and lack of awareness of his place within the rugby community. He simply had no idea how well loved he was by rugby fans worldwide.
I’ve never felt more proud than on that March afternoon in Cardiff where I joined 80,000 others in belting out “for he’s a jolly good fellow” immediately before kick-off. There wasn’t a dry eye between the family. Papa loved the Welsh fans for their passion and knowledge and he had fond memories of commentating on the likes of Gerald Davies, Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams to name but a few.
Today, though, the Welsh are hurting, angry and disappointed after under-achieving this term. It was predicted by many, given the exertions of many of their players during the Lions tour to Australia, but that won’t have made it any easier for the expectant players or public to stomach.
They were comfortably beaten by a consistent and efficient English side last weekend and Warren Gatland has wielded the axe for the first time in a while, dropping Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones and Rhys Priestland, while he has also been forced to replace injured duo Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb.
The towering Luke Charteris is fit again and replaces Jake Ball in the boiler-house. This Welsh squad is packed full of experience with the 23-man squad sharing 950 caps between them, but appear more vulnerable than I remember.
They have a very clear plan but, when that Plan A is stopped, there doesn’t seem to be a Plan B. Their scrum has creaked, their unforced errors have rocketed and their physical attacking game was nullified by both Ireland and England. The key to that is neutralising the first three phases from set-piece and not allowing them to batter their way over the gainline.
That is easier said than done, given the power and pace within the Welsh side. You know exactly what’s coming through Jamie Roberts, Toby Faletau and George North, and can plan for it, but stopping it is an altogether different proposition.
Both of their wins this year have come at the Millenium Stadium and there is no doubt that the cacophony of noise generated by the passionate crowd gives the Welsh Dragon a little extra fire. For Scotland’s new boy Dougie Fife it will be a moment he never forgets. The Welsh are known for their singing and, during O Flower of Scotland, Land of my Fathers and the 80 minutes of action, the noise has nowhere to go and instead bounces off the roof and reverberates around the stadium at a decibel level rarely experienced elsewhere.
The Scots must fuel themselves with the frustrations of last weekend and understand how much good work was done. They made France look toothless in attack, held firm against a daunting scrum, dominated the lineout and should have won the game twice over.
That game has gone but Scotland have shown improvement game on game and are offered the opportunity to finish this tournament on a high.
Wales are known for kicking the ball long from their exit strategy and backing their kick-chase and keeping the ball in play. So the back three should have plenty opportunity to impose themselves on the game, but their decision-making – whether to run, kick or pass on the counter-attack – is crucial. Halfpenny is a huge loss for Wales at full-back and Liam Williams should be tested with aerial bombardment early.
It’s a great challenge this weekend for the midfield trio against high-quality individuals. Dan Biggar will be out to impress but he and Mike Phillips can get frustrated when things don’t go to plan. Webb was charged down more than once against England and, when Phillips came off the bench, every time he shaped to kick he had two Englishmen breathing down his neck.
The Scottish pack must impose themselves at the set-piece and I’ve really enjoyed watching Scott Lawson, the giants Jim Hamilton and Richie Gray, Dave Denton and Ryan Wilson get their hands on the ball in recent weeks.
Scotland will need them, and every member of the squad, at their best to break a stubborn Welsh defence.
Discipline has been the buzz word this week and throughout the tournament so Kelly Brown must have buy-in from the boys and keep 15 on the field for 80 minutes today.
The challenge is significant but, as ever, I believe this group of players can win. It was the class of 2002 who last won at the Millennium Stadium as Papa called his last game. I would love to hear the racket produced by Scottish voices bouncing off the stadium roof following a victory in Cardiff this afternoon.