Gregor Townsend's tweaks give Scots confidence for Cardiff clash
There is the charitable aspect of today’s Cardiff clash between Wales and Scotland, the two teams playing for the Doddie Weir Cup and, after digging in their heels, both unions agreeing to make a six-figure donation to the motor neurone disease charity set up by the big fella. On top of that Wales’ coach Warren Gatland is only just returned from his native New Zealand following the death of his father.
And there seems to be some bad blood between the Celtic cousins, at least between the two coaches who have been lobbing thinly disguised barbs at each other ever since Gatland, having failed to select many Scottish players, tried to tempt Gregor Townsend on to the Lions’ coaching staff only for the Scot to decline.
The two teams play today’s game in the inevitable shadow of their last, dramatic meeting. The Scots arrived in Cardiff last February burdened with expectation and they left it burdened with doubt. Gatland insisted afterwards that he had anticipated the result.
Last week Townsend mentioned that Scotland’s preparation the week of that 34-7 loss had been poor and his opposite number jumped on it: “It wasn’t about a good Wales performance, it was about how poorly they had prepared!”
Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they say in the financial world, which is just as well for Scotland because the cold statistics do not favour them.
Scotland have won just once, in 2002 with Townsend in the No 10 shirt, since the Principality Stadium was built in 1999 while Wales have triumphed in 14 of the last 16 meetings between the two teams. Wales come into this game with the wind at their backs because victory over Scotland would mark their sixth win in succession. Excluding Italy, the Scots have not won on the road against European opposition since that Dublin triumph way back in 2010 and still Townsend insists that his side don’t have a problem winning away from home.
They do... but the national coach is understandably loath to admit it because doing so would only inflate the problem.
The two teams look pretty evenly matched, both relatively strong given the numbers not available for one reason or another. The Scots’ front row will hope to dominate two home props, neither of whom can be called first choice for Wales. Allan Dell showed his class against Montpellier’s giant scrum in the Champions Cup and WP Nel is getting back to his best after that long layoff with damage to his neck. And if the Lions’ Test XV was being picked this morning then Scotland skipper Stuart McInally would have a decent shout as the starting hooker.
The second rows are evenly matched but Wales have an edge in expertise and experience in the breakaways where Scotland’s Ryan Wilson still looks like a blindside flanker playing at No 8 and Jamie Ritchie is perhaps fourth pick for the No 6 shirt if everyone was fit and free to play. Justin Tipuric against Hamish Watson at seven is one to savour.
Leigh Halfpenny filled his boots in February with 24 points including a brace of tries so Scotland will keep better tabs on the Welsh full-back but there is little they can do to prevent him kicking everything off the tee except, of course, keeping the penalty count to a minimum. His opposite number, Blair Kinghorn, can be brilliant with the ball in hand but is still prone to the odd defensive lapse.
Wales have an advantage on the wings where George North is benefitting from being back home, while Luke Morgan is cut from the same cloth as Scotland sub Darcy Graham.
The visitors arguably have the better attacking centres, Wales the better defensive pair and, with so many other aspects being equal, this game may rest upon the half-backs where Gareth Anscombe (18 Tests) and Gareth Davies (33) have an edge in experience over Ali Price (17) and Adam Hastings (3).
In the modern game coaches usually shy away from focusing on one member of the opposition but Gatland is at that stage in life when he doesn’t care much for convention.
“Adam Hastings has had some international experience at ten,” the Kiwi noted last week, “but there will be some pressure on him to play in Cardiff. We have got to make sure we put as much pressure on him as we possibly can.”
Hastings is a class act but he is also young and his two Test starts to date, against the USA and Argentina, are poor preparation for Wales in Cardiff under the closed roof of the Principality Stadium. If he needs time to acclimatise to the pace of the game, Wales will give it only grudgingly.
When he announced the original squad of players for this autumn series Townsend was asked if he was planning on changing the way Scotland played the game and his short answer was no.
“Building on the things that are working, refining them to make them even more accurate,” he said. “But the base of our game I believe won’t change... The basis of the game has to be an aggressive defence that gets the ball back, and an attack at a pace that works the opposition and puts their fitness under pressure.”
The answer was “no” because Townsend already had tweaked the way Scotland approached internationals and he did it immediately after that humiliation in Cardiff. He slowed Scotland down, especially in the opposition red zone, and he tightened them up, which meant they held on to the ball for far longer.
Those changes helped them beat France, England and Italy in the Six Nations and the same tweaks should see the Scots push Wales all the way this afternoon.