Defence will be key in Dragons’ den says Scotland coach

Chris Harris' defensive qualities at centre will be key for Scotland against Wales at the Principality Stadium.
Chris Harris' defensive qualities at centre will be key for Scotland against Wales at the Principality Stadium.
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Even the recall of 46-cap, 36-year-old veteran hooker Scott Lawson isn’t enough to provide the Scotland squad with any player who has any experience of beating Wales in Cardiff.

Hopes haven’t been as high or odds as short – as tight as 11/10 with some bookies – that the resurgent Scots can end a 16-year drought in the Welsh capital.

In the shape of head coach Gregor Townsend, however, there is a man at the helm who has tasted victory in the Cardiff cauldron. Only twice in an 82-cap career, mind you.

Townsend scored the Scottish try in a tight 16-14 win in 1996 which set them up for an ultimately unsuccessful shot at the Grand Slam against England and he was at stand-off in 2002 for that last success at the then Millennium, now Principality Stadium. The subsequent eight defeats, including a World Cup warm-up in 2003, and the fact that it was the last Six Nations TV commentary by the legendary Bill McLaren have adorned that early April afternoon with more significance than the quality of the game deserved.

It was the end of a poor campaign by both sides, with wins over Italy all either side had managed thus far, and unfolded as a fairly shambolic affair. In the end, two Gordon Bulloch tries and 14 points from Brendan Laney’s boot helped Scotland to a 27-24 win.

In a column for this paper two years ago, former Scotland back-rower Simon Taylor recalled: “My clearest memory of the match is tackling one of the Welsh subs and being engulfed by the unmistakable smell of last night’s lager.”

As for Townsend’s memories?

“I remember lineout drives… Gordie Bulloch scoring two tries,” he said. “I do remember that game because it was important to us, not just because we were playing for Scotland which is always very important, but we knew it was going to be Bill McLaren’s last game and we were delighted we won, but I think there was a bit of disappointment that his last game wasn’t an epic of free-flowing rugby.

“Little did we know then that it would be the last win for a long time, but even in that run where Scotland haven’t done as well as Wales they’ve been really good games.

“There’s something about that fixture, probably because of the supporters with the thousands that come up to Edinburgh and the thousands that go down to Cardiff from Scotland. It’s a fun fixture with a great atmosphere at both stadiums.”

A lot has changed in 16 years as Wales went on to become a dominant force in the Six Nations, beating the Scots ten years in a row until losing at BT Murrayfield last season.

It feels like Scotland are on the verge of a similar return to the top table on the back of the progress seen in the last couple of years, but it needs a groundbreaking result at the Principality Stadium on Saturday to turn renewed respect into genuine fear from rivals who have grown used to seeing the men in dark blue off on their own patches.

Take Rome out of the equation and Scotland have not won one of these trips to the traditional championship venues since the last-gasp Dan Parks penalty against Ireland at Croke Park in 2010. Going further back than Cardiff 2002, the landmark years are 1999 in Paris and 1983 at Twickenham.

“You need to win away from home if you’ve got realistic ambitions of winning the championship,” admitted Townsend but the coach was quick to reiterate that the trend has been heading more and more towards home advantage. Outside Rome, England’s narrow win in Cardiff was the only away win last year.

The optimism carrying Scotland into this tournament is built upon the explosion of attacking flair, started under Vern Cotter and built upon by Townsend, but come the intensity of Saturday afternoon, the coach knows that caution cannot be thrown to the wind.

The selection of tough-tackling Chris Harris at centre shows that Scotland are clearly prepared for an onslaught from a Welsh team deprived of a host of star names through injury.

“Defence is really important, whoever you’re playing against and we’ve got to make sure that right throughout the team we have that as our No 1 priority,” insisted Townsend. “So we look at players and how well they’re defending, how they can combine with other players to make sure we’re really solid.

“Most of the oppositions we play against now are going to be attacking in the wider channels, attacking through the backs, so we’ve got to make sure we’re strong there. Wales are certainly one team that will be direct. They’ll go at the 10, 12 channel, but they will try to pass the ball, get into 13 and the outside channels, so having Huw [Jones] and Chris working well together during the week, we’re really confident we can defend well.”

Harris’s chance has come after Alex Dunbar continues to go through concussion protocols following a recent head knock. Townesend revealed the Glasgow centre had been training but wasn’t considered this week. Saracens’ Duncan Taylor has a similar problem but has gone back to his club.

The coach hopes Toulouse lock Richie Gray, who has a calf injury, could join the camp on Monday and has a chance of being involved for next Sunday’s home game against France.