Cardiff hasn’t often been a happy hunting ground for us, though the same could be said of most away venues. The Six Nations match in February was pretty galling, if not quite on the scale of the 51-3 defeat four years previously. That was the day Stuart Hogg was sent off for a rash challenge on Dan Biggar as both leaped to field a high kick and our interim coach, Scott Johnson, didn’t apparently think it might be a good idea to sacrifice a forward in order to have a full complement of backs.
Still, we have had good days. There was a fine win way back in 1962, a match distinguished by some magnificent tackling from our openside wing-forward Ronnie Glasgow. Glasgow was as destructive an openside as any Scot I’ve seen with the exception of the great Douglas Elliot. It was ridiculous that he got only a handful of caps, the penalty for playing for unfashionable clubs, Gordonians and Dunfermline.
Today’s Scotland team is unusual in that it is drawn entirely from home-based clubs, not something that has happened often in our history. There is one notable precedent: Jim Aitken’s 1984 side. Cardiff was our first match in what proved to be a Grand Slam year. Incidentally, one of our tries that afternoon was created by means of a well-rehearsed tap-penalty move. I don’t know when I’ve last seen such a thing in the professional game and I can’t for the life of me think why. Very often, when awarded a free-kick, a side opts for a scrum. This is weird considering how often scrum penalties are conceded, sometimes even by a pack that has seemed to be dominant.
Despite injuries and the unavailability of, among others, Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw and Sean Maitland, this looks a pretty good Scotland team, with a nice mixture of experience and youth – to which one might add that some of the experienced are also still youthful, Jonny Gray for example. If you are good enough and stay fit you can pick up an awful lot of caps in a very short time these days. I read this week that – potentially – an England player could collect 20 caps from now till next November. This would, I think, require England to reach the World Cup final in Japan. It used to take four or five years to earn that many caps.
Some fear that Scotland today may be a bit lacking in carrying-power in the back row. This may be true. Ryan Wilson at 8 has many virtues but isn’t noted for driving deep into the opposition defence. Still, there should be nothing like the expression of such doubts to motivate a player.
This is something that the wily old Welsh coach Warren Gatland knows very well. This week he has been stirring up his prop Dillon Lewis by remarking that Danny Wilson, head coach at Cardiff Blues till he became Scotland’s defence coach recently, “unfortunately did not rate Dillon that highly”.
To some extent, Alex Dunbar at 12 should compensate for any inadequacy in the ball-carrying department. Fully fit, as we hope he now is after a series of injuries over the last couple of years, few midfield backs are capable of going as hard at the midfield defence and putting his forwards on the front foot. His general alertness, handling skills and defence are all good but, in this particular team at least, it is his ability to get well over the gain-line that may be most valuable.
It may be a rather unusual match. Though there is a trophy to be won – the Doddie Weir Cup – playing a Six Nations rival in a one-off match, nothing to do with the Six Nations or the World Cup, seems a bit strange. In November internationals we usually host sides from overseas. Here we have two teams made up of players who confront each other week-in week-out in the Guinness Pro14.
Still there is much of interest, especially but not only in individual performances. Wales have given a first cap to the Ospreys wing Luke Morgan who has spent most of the last half-dozen years on the IRB Sevens circuit. He has till now been deemed too small for 15-a-side international rugby. Lee Jones on Scotland’s left wing today should shake his hand. When he was with Edinburgh, the head coach Alan Solomons, in effect, told him he had no use for him because he preferred to have big wings. Lee who had been capped four times by Andy Robinson then returned to the Sevens circuit before Gregor Townsend recalled him to Glasgow and revived his 15-a-side career.
On the Scotland bench today we also have the very promising Hawick youngster Darcy Graham, another who makes up in skill, speed and determination what he lacks in inches. With wings like Luke Morgan, Lee Jones and Darcy Graham we can even begin to revive the old claim that rugby is a game for players of all sizes and shapes. Perhaps.