THE very fact that Scotland have not won a Test match in Cardiff since 2002 might be enough to focus the minds and bury the agony of the last-gasp loss on Saturday, but captain Kelly Brown is hoping that the latest French lessons could be central to beating Wales.
Brown was in fine fettle yesterday after the SRU swapped the captain’s media conference planned for tomorrow with the intended team announcement, as the management give a handful of players more time to recover from injuries suffered in the 19-17 defeat to France. There should have been no surprise that Brown would be the skipper this week but, after he was dropped from the side for the games with England and Italy, it was not a foregone conclusion.
So, with his selection assured, the big back row was happy to talk about the size of the challenge Scotland face in meeting a bruised dragon in the Welsh capital, most notably in his area of the pitch, where his expected colleagues David Denton and Ryan Wilson are likely to come up against three British and Irish Lions in Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau.
Delivering a neat phrase for the headline-writers, Brown said: “I have no doubt that they will come out breathing fire and that it’s going to be a very tough match. If you’re playing in that stadium, it is a real cauldron but I think that’s exciting. That’s the challenge we have been set and we can’t wait for it.
“They were up against a very strong side [on Saturday]. I felt that England played really well. They were physical, they were ambitious and they put the Welsh under a lot of pressure. It just shows that any side under pressure is going to struggle and that’s what happens on Sunday.
“But it remains a very, very big challenge. We are playing against the Lions in the back row and that is going to be tough, but you want to test yourself against the best and that’s certainly what we’re doing.
“But it is not just about the back row battle. As a pack, we really need to try and impose ourselves on them. If you look at their pack, it is obviously very strong, with a lot of Lions and a lot of experience in there, but I think it’s really exciting.”
Exciting is one word. If Scotland do not reduce a penalty count running at an average of ten per game – the top sides in the world aim to keep it below five – then they will be lambs to the slaughter against a team with several scavengers in the pack and two goal-kickers of repute in Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland, who will mitigate the loss of Leigh Halfpenny to injury. They are merely human and occasionally fallible in front of goal, unlike the incredible diminutive Cardiff 15.
Brown is acutely aware of Scotland’s place atop the 2014 Six Nations table for penalties, with 51, although, in fairness, Wales are not far behind with 47, which has caused their coach Warren Gatland sleepless nights. Wales’ statistics for the championship are similar to Scotland’s across the board. Scotland have conceded 51 turnovers to Wales’ 64, missed 72 tackles to Wales’ 71, both have scored four tries and lost five scrums, while the Welsh have lost 18 rucks to Scotland’s 19.
The key stat is points and wins – Wales have scored 71 and won two games while Scotland have amassed just 44 points and won once. “Should have” does not count. There is not much between these teams at this moment in time with Wales’ inability to control games for long periods pointing to a post-Lions tour hangover.
Brown declined to comment on that traditional phenomenon affecting this weekend’s hosts. He is working hard, both within the camp and publicly, to keep the focus purely on the Scottish players, taking confidence from what they did well in the two games with Italy and France, and bringing a hard-headed approach to the ill-discipline and frustrating number of errors.
“If we look back, I think we can take a lot of positives from it [defeat to France],” he insisted. “A lot of aspects of our game were very good and I felt as if, right over the course of the game, we were in control, but we didn’t quite see the game out so that’s something we need to improve. In general, over the course of the championship, we have conceded far too many penalties. We have looked at that and our discipline is something we have really focused on this week.
“If it is a 50/50 call and you are not certain [of winning the ball legally] then you should leave it. In the past, we have been so enthusiastic to make a positive impact and, at times, we have been penalised for it. That was very, very disappointing [on Saturday], but it is in the past now and we need to learn from it and move on because we have a really tough match coming up.”
As for whether he feared French referee Jerome Garces, who whistled Scotland in their biggest nightmare performance of the season against England – Brown was in London watching that one from afar – might now have a preconceived idea of Scotland as the sinners due to that penalty count, even though Wales have been almost as bad, Brown said: “That’s not for me to comment on. That’s someone else’s opinion. What we can do is look at ourselves and place a real emphasis on discipline on Saturday.
“It is something we have spoken about. If it is a 50/50 call then I think we should just leave it, but that’s not to say we are going to sit back. We have to keep on with our line speed and keep on contesting the breakdown.
“In discipline, it is an all-round thing and you can’t look at other sides. We need to look at ourselves to see what we can do to improve our discipline.”
With interim head coach Scott Johnson’s work with the backs showing genuine improvement in this championship, the real faults have lain with the forward pack and there are questions over whether new forwards chief Jon Humphreys is making the impact he had hoped for. That is perhaps where incoming coach Vern Cotter may be able to effect the greatest improvement in the Scotland squad, because they certainly have a solid core of players capable of going toe-to-toe with the best forwards in the northern hemisphere. One hopes that the fear of penalties does not serve to hand Wales an advantage on Saturday. “As a team, we have grown a lot through the course of the championship,” added the captain. “It is now about making sure we take those lessons on as we go forward and not to go back on ourselves,” added Brown.
“The second thing I think is great is the number of young guys who have come into the side and have built a lot of experience and have played well. That puts us in a good place going forward.
“Whenever you are lucky enough to be selected to play for Scotland it is a huge honour. We will always try to make Scotland proud and it doesn’t change this week. It is exactly the same and we’re looking to put in a really good performance down in Cardiff.”
Learning lessons and not making the same mistakes twice. It would help if Johnson announced the same team today that experienced some harsh realities on Saturday, bar the enforced changes thrust upon him by injuries.