THERE is no-one in Scotland who understands the mentality of the Welsh squad better than Jonathan Humphreys. There may be no-one in Wales who does so either.
Now Scotland’s forwards coach, Humphreys has been a friend of Welsh attack coach Rob Howley since the pair were young boys in Bridgend. Capped 35 times for Wales, including a spell as captain, Humphreys graduated to coaching with the Ospreys, where he worked with leading members of the current Wales squad, including Alun Wyn Jones and Richard Hibbard.
The 45-year-old’s main concern this week, of course, will be helping the Scotland squad improve on their promising but frustrating first outing in Paris. But he is also ideally placed to school the home team in the dangers that will face them at BT Murrayfield on Sunday, and to assess the threat of a Welsh squad who head north having also lost their opening game, at home to England. Third last year, Wales won the Six Nations in 2013 and 2012, but finished fourth in the three previous years. That may suggest they are a team who lose momentum unless they have a chance of becoming champions, but Humphreys believes they are more resilient these days.
“They’ve been there before,” the former hooker said yesterday. “They came off the back of a poor autumn and lost the opening game against Ireland at home [in 2014] – then went on a roll. They’re very good at regaining momentum; very good at fighting and scrapping for a win.
“They’ve been in this position a few times and they’ll now go into a siege mentality. They’ll withdraw into themselves and go back and concentrate on the things they believe define them and make them a good team.
“Things like being more physical than the opposition, limiting the set-pieces and dominating field positions. That’s what they’ll talk about. They’ll talk about the fact they’ve been here before and they know how to get out of it.
“You know what Alun Wyn is, and Hibbard, a load of the other kids. They’re extremely physical and extremely good I think it’s pretty obvious what those kids stand for and what they are: they’re two of the best players in their positions in the world.”
Humphreys believes the same can be said of Leigh Halfpenny, whose place-kicking accuracy is a threat to any team that concedes a penalty anywhere in its own half – and sometimes beyond. “He’s up there with the best in the world. When you’re looking at all these teams, the difference with Leigh is that he can probably kick them from 60 metres out. So everyone who plays Wales will say the same thing: ‘You can’t give away penalties because of him’.”
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There are times when Scottish rugby looks enviously on the depth of affection for the sport in Wales, but Humphreys warned that such enthusiasm can cut both ways, putting pressure on Welsh players as well as offering them support. “In Wales there’s an interest and a fervour behind what goes on in rugby. “Where you might think it’s really good for [Wales captain] Sam Warburton, I don’t think it’ll be good for Sam this week. There are knock-on effects.
“The people care about it – but it can be suffocating. Those guys in that camp, they go into a cocoon and seal themselves off, because they don’t want to be in the middle of it. I presume the Welsh media will be going crazy, because down there the boys are always the best side in the world or the worst side in the world. I don’t think there’s any happy medium there.
“So there are good and bad sides to it. When you’re riding the crest of a wave, fantastic. When you’re not, it’s not a good place to be.”
A calm, thoughtful assessor of the game, as far removed from that stereotype of the Welsh rugby aficionado as it is possible to be, Humphreys is confident that his current squad are heading in the right direction. They may be nowhere close to the crest of a wave at present, but he is sure they will learn the lessons of that weekend defeat by France and continue to improve.
“There’s an immense feeling of disappointment, as we felt it was a game where we could have possibly achieved the result we wanted,” he said of the 15-8 loss in the Stade de France. “We have a team which if you looked at a graph then we are on a completely different point to Wales are. They have a team which is stacked full of internationals who have been there for a long, long time. They have a coaching staff which has been extremely successful.
“So we’re completely different. We want to make sure that the Scottish public is getting behind us can see that we are trying to represent ourselves and the Scottish people by playing a Scottish style of rugby.
“We’re extremely positive about where we’re going and how we’re going. We know where we need to get to and the players are extremely positive in that.
“We can’t think about what they’re going to do. We need to think about what we’re doing, playing the rugby we want to play. That takes care of what they’re trying to do.”