Dick Cheney, currently being portrayed in Vice in cinemas near you, used to be referred to as “Bush’s brain” and in the absence of Greig Laidlaw, who does most of the head scratching for this Scotland squad, Gregor Townsend has drafted in another player with oodles of rugby nous. For 80 minutes on Saturday afternoon, Peter Horne will be the “brains” of the operation against Wales.
Demoting Laidlaw, captain and conscience of this squad, to the bench will cause headlines but Townsend may have concluded that there was little point in playing a stand-off like Finn Russell, who needs time against Wales’ rush defence, unless he can be guaranteed a quicker service than Laidlaw was providing.
Horne played his best ever game for Scotland at 12 (last year’s Calcutta Cup showdown with England) and one of his worst (against Ireland again last season) when he made two absolute howlers in distribution. The move isn’t risk free but Scotland rarely have that luxury.
Ali Price will bring energy at scrum-half, pose a threat with the ball in hand and provide a quick service to Russell who, in turn, will be expected to find a way through, around, or over Wales’ press defence, which has been bamboozling the Scots since Shaun Edwards first introduced it over a decade ago.
Meanwhile, Horne, pictured, will be acting as another pair of eyes, a second receiver when the field splits and a left-footed counterpoint to Russell’s right boot on a day when we may witness a lot of kicking.
Wales kicked more than anyone in the autumn but they are less married to the tactic now, especially with Gareth Anscombe starting. Wales won very little ball against France on the opening weekend and kicked 13 per cent of it simply because the tactic worked on the day.
Seeing much more of the ball against England and Italy, the Welsh kicked 9 per cent and 8 per cent of possession respectively in those matches. Wales kick when they need to rather than because it is written in stone. They are opportunists, they do what works on the day.
In contrast Scotland have kicked rarely, 6 per cent against Ireland and just 4 per cent of their possession was booted away in Paris. On one level this makes sense, Townsend would have wanted to move the big French forwards around the park. And yet if he was determined to run the ball why did the coach opt for a tactically astute, kicking stand-off like Horne over Adam Hastings?
Wales will look at Darcy Graham and test him in the air but the Hawick man is surprisingly efficient at bomb disposal given his size and gets off the ground early to compete in the air. Graham (1.76m) is scheduled to go head-to-head with George North (1.94m) who is selected at 14 although, in the same shirt, he played the whole England match on the left wing.
Graham may swap places with Blair Kinghorn on occasion when Wales have an attacking set piece inside the Scotland red zone, just to show the visitors’ decision makers a different picture.
In the forwards I would have liked to see the sideline specialist Sam Skinner in the Scotland second row because the Welsh lineout has been wayward all season with ten (37 per cent) of all their arrows missing the mark. Any other opposition would be licking their lips in anticipation of filling their boots, except Scotland, who have yet to make a single lineout steal against 35 opposition throws.
It may be a tactical move not to compete inside their own 22 metre line but anywhere else on the park the Scots could pick a random number between one and seven and still expect a few steals. To have failed to hijack a single opposition throw after three matches is noteworthy, for all the wrong reasons.
These lineout stats put forwards coach Danny Wilson under the spotlight, especially since Scotland have lost five of their own throws. He is Welsh and will be eager to spoil the visitors’ Grand Slam plans but it is rare for the Scots to even compete on the opposition throw and they certainly won’t make steals without getting one or two big men into the air.
It is an art as much as a science. Some locks have a gut feel for calling defensive lineouts, perhaps Wilson needs to appoint a new on-field lieutenant?
The visitors are probably the fittest team in the competition, bouncing back in the second half against France and England after trailing at half-time.
In many statistics the two teams can’t be easily separated; possession (Scotland 49 per cent/52 per cent Wales), territory (55/52 per cent), tackle completion statistics (89/90 per cent) and both teams have seven tries apiece to date.
However, the Scots’ leaky defence has conceded a total of ten tries against five for Wales; another bone for Townsend to gnaw upon.