Scotland are facing the prospect of nine Six Nations defeats on the bounce and, coincidentally, a record nine successive losses against Wales, so the Principality Stadium (the new name for the Millennium) would come last on their list of preferred venues. Home to the best team in Europe of the last decade, probably the strongest squad in the championship and, with or without the roof closed, the most intimidating rugby ground anywhere in the world. Oh, and George Clancy is referee, heaven help us.
Of course, the Scots react best with their backs to the wall, unlike last Saturday when the tartan-clad fans had installed their team as favourites even if the bookmakers didn’t agree. Pundits and players alike were guilty of over-optimism but this is still the side that performed heroics at the World Cup. They haven’t become bad overnight, they just played poorly against England and, as the eternally cheerful breakaway David Denton insists, they can claw things back today.
They are a big team who try to dominate you. We need to match thatJason O’Halloran
“We are by no means out of this competition,” he said. “We have lost an important game at home and there’s no getting away from that but we have a massive opportunity to play a side who have been one of the world’s top teams over the last five years.”
To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, elite sport is chock-full of known unknowns and unknown unknowns but there is one near certainty about this afternoon in Cardiff – Scotland will be better than they were last Saturday. After all the World Cup plaudits they have been stung by all the brickbats lobbed their way and we should see a reaction, although whether wounded pride alone can bridge the gap in quality and experience is a moot point.
At least this Welsh team looks like it will come out to play rugby if Dublin’s performance is anything to go by. The figures might be skewed by the fact that Wales were chasing the game for long periods during last weekend’s 16-16 draw but their 203 passes completed is more than this side usually make in two matches. (England made 110 passes at Murrayfield).
Warren Gatland has been quoted as asking his players to be “more direct”, which is probably good advice. Despite all those passes in Dublin the Welsh managed not one clean break throughout the 80 minutes. But before the Scots get blasé, this was at least partly explained by Rhys Priestland operating deep in quarterback territory after replacing stand-off Dan Biggar early in the game.
Biggar is back at No 10 today. His ability to take the ball to the line and vary the attacking threat from hand and foot – no one has a better range of kicks to call upon – will pose the visitors problems, although they have suffered numerous self-inflicted wounds in recent years.
Such has been their indiscipline that the Scots have earned an eye-watering seven cards in the last five visits to Cardiff, including two reds, one of which went to Stuart Hogg two years ago in ugly circumstances.
The full-back will be keen to make a splash for very different reasons today and, unlike some of his fellow backs, the Hawick man looks in good nick. He was Scotland’s best attacker last weekend, carrying 18 times for 101 metres gained and five defenders beaten. His battle with Liam Williams should be worth the admission alone.
Wales can win this one several ways, up the jumper or running rugby, but it is difficult to see where Scotland can get a toehold in this contest. The setpiece looks evenly matched and that presumes Ross Ford is on the money. Both teams field two genuine opensides, with experience favouring the men in red. Both sides have exciting young stand-offs but Bigger is better and, what’s more, he is as accurate off the tee as Greig Laidlaw and much longer to boot. Wales have a backline that boasts that Lions midfield combination of Jamie Roberts and Jon Davies, with George North looking something like his old self outside them. The Welsh are better in the aerial battle.
Denton was joined by Jason O’Halloran at yesterday’s briefing and ironically it fell to Scotland’s backs coach to spell out what Scotland need above all else from the forward pack, a mental hurdle as much as a physical one.
“Matching them physically,” O’Halloran insisted. “They are a big, strong team who try to dominate you. We need to match that from the word go.”
The Scots are not without weapons in the back division but they need the front five forwards to provide the fast, front-foot ball that allows the quick men to attack the Welsh defence before it has had a chance to reload and charge off the line. Japan did exactly that against Scotland at the World Cup.
The Scots are fighting recent form, an eight-match Six Nations losing streak, a very good Welsh team and history itself. Last week they somehow found the energy to circle the wagons and turn their guns on the press, not that O’Halloran was joining in. “If we don’t play well we deserve criticism,” he said. “We have 80 minutes to influence what you guys write. We can take control there.”
This Scottish squad will receive all the superlatives a thesaurus can provide should they manage an unexpected victory this afternoon against Wales and history.