Scotland out to end Wales’ ten-year winning run

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The year was 1975, Wales were playing at Murrayfield and, come kick-off, the crowd was still mostly queuing outside, rather than filling the old ground.

The solution was interesting, and not one that you’d recommend today. The authorities opened the gates and let everyone in, man, women, child and ticket tout alike. There was later reckoned to be 104,000 fans packed into the stadium and a good percentage of them were sporting red.

Scotland's Tommy Seymour, Ryan Wilson, John Barclay and Hamish Watson stretch off during the final training session ahead of the match against Wales. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Scotland's Tommy Seymour, Ryan Wilson, John Barclay and Hamish Watson stretch off during the final training session ahead of the match against Wales. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

The Welsh enjoy a trip to Edinburgh and why shouldn’t they, having not lost in the capital for ten years. Today’s visitors are currently on the longest winning run against Scotland that they have ever enjoyed, nine consecutive victories, which overshadows the seven that Wales won from 1908-1914, the last year before the great tournament was suspended for the duration of the Great War. Almost every Welshman who arrives at Murrayfield today will do so in the full expectation of celebrating victory number ten over the Scots; some of the younger ones know nothing else. They will look at the twin teamsheets and they will look at each other and they will try, not very hard, to suppress a small smile of anticipation.

After all, this is the team that should have ended England’s own winning streak just two weeks ago, Jon Davies presumably having to write out one hundred lines: “I must not kick the ball down Stuart Hogg’s throat” on the team blackboard before being allowed to take to the field.

This is the key match for both teams. Lose this and Wales will abandon all hopes of winning the title, while Scotland’s bar was set a little lower. They don’t expect to beat England at Twickenham, although it is not impossible, and the Scots hope to have put some distance between themselves and Italy, their traditional dance partner at the Six Nations ball. A win today should give Scotland the opportunity to gain pass marks, three victories from five, and if that doesn’t sound overly ambitious, the team has managed it only once in the 
Six Nations.

There any similarities end. Scotland are missing over one third of their starting XV, while Wales pick from such a position of strength that they can leave two British and Irish Test Lions on the bench – Taulupe Faletau and the old war horse Jamie Roberts, still a brick wall in defence

Alex Cuthbert is drop-kicked out of the matchday 23 to be replaced by the infinitely more impressive George North. Luke Charteris, undroppable a few years back, starts on the bench alongside the small but gifted playmaker Sam Davies, who boasts a similar size and have-a-go outlook of Arwel Thomas.

“We feel that we have a bench that can make a difference, we feel that we have more power than we have had for a long, long time,” Scotland’s forwards’ coach Jonathan Humphreys claimed just yesterday but any comparison between the two sets of substitutes proves that Rob Howley has riches beyond his compatriot’s comprehension.

When scanning the team sheets it is difficult to recognise any one area where Scotland have a clear and obvious advantage.

Admittedly, Hogg can win this one all on his own such is his form on the ball but so too can North or Liam Williams and that is presuming that Leigh Halfpenny’s boot hasn’t already done so.

Scotland’s ill discipline was their Achilles’ heel for many years and Vern Cotter stamped it out, or thought he had. Now it is back, the Scots lost the penalty count against both Ireland and France because of their woes at the set scrum. Strip out scrum penalties and the Scots win the count in both matches but that is easier said than done.

Irishman John Lacey officiates this game and, as a former Munster winger, he brings no great insight into the murky dealings of the set scrum.

He can hardly be blamed for it but Lacey will take his cue from what he already knows and he knows that Scotland’s scrum have struggled thus far.

While North reinforced the Welsh squad, Scotland mourned the loss of Sean Maitland, whose intelligent reading of the game prevented two Irish tries, and Josh Strauss, who was the only forward in blue to make much headway in Paris. And Scotland will miss Greig Laidlaw’s for his leadership, his nerveless kicking and the calming influence he beings to bear on those around him.

Only with him gone will we discover the true worth of the little Jethart.

Wherever Scotland produce a face card from up their sleeve, Wales seem to trump it. Ali Price offers a running threat at scrum-half, as does his opposite number Rhys Webb, who is backed up with 25 international caps (compared to Price’s two) and the Welshman has a decent shout at the Lions’ squad.

Finn Russell is a game breaker at ten, as is Dan Biggar, who is the better kicker from hand on a day when the ball will be wet. Flanker John Hardie is an aggressive defender who adheres to Vince Lombardi’s mantra “ballroom dancing is a contact sport, [American] football is a hitting sport”, but so does Wales’ Ross Moriarty, as Owen Farrell will testify.

You could argue that Scotland enjoy a marginal edge at the lineout – until you realise that Welsh hooker Owen Williams currently has a 100 per cent success rate with 20/20 of his arrows hitting the target.

Across the teamsheet, today’s visitors appear to have a small but significant advantage from 1-23 and yet, despite conceding age, experience and achievements, only a fool would write this Scotland team off.

If nothing else they have the law of averages on their side because Wales’ winning streak has to end some time and today is as good a day as any other.

More importantly, in the three seasons Vern Cotter has had the helm, Scotland have gone from being a team that lost games they should have won (Italy, 2015) to being a side that wins matches they had no right to (Ireland, 2017).

The Scots have home advantage and they have a growing belief in their ability to compete at the top end of the international pyramid, even with opponents that have been there long enough to become fully acclimatised.

If the weather stays benign, the match should be a humdinger. It will be close but the Wales should have just enough age and experience to crawl over the finish line first.

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