The Welsh showed a great deal of grit and determination last weekend, clawing back the match against Ireland and eventually forcing a 16-16 draw. Whilst a draw is both a frustrating and unlikely result in rugby, it has blown the competition wide open and it was arguably a more promising result for Wales than it was for Ireland. Liam Williams looked like he’d never been away; the Welsh pack did astonishingly well at the scrum; and a special mention is needed as well for Jamie Roberts, who put in an enormous defensive effort in the centre and proved to be just as physical in attack.
Scotland’s campaign got off to a slightly less positive start against Eddie Jones’s new-look England outfit in an error-ridden match in Murrayfield that ended 9-15, the visitors claiming the spoils and that all important Calcutta Cup. All eyes will be on Finn Russell this weekend who sadly failed to get his game moving up the gears and was unable to manage the match effectively from his outside-half berth. Scotland’s most potent attacking threat last weekend came in the form of Stuart Hogg who looked dangerous from anywhere on the pitch and showed his enterprise and mettle.
Gatland continues to pick on form and create some consistency in the team, naming an unchanged starting XV to face Scotland this weekend.
Liam Williams keeps his spot at fullback, and the heavy-set duo of North and James are retained on the wing. The first choice partnership of Roberts and Davies link up again in the centre, while Dan Biggar’s inclusion at stand-off comes as a surprise after he hobbled off the pitch last weekend, Gatland claiming that his timely recovery is “miraculous”.
Gareth Davies’s delivery from the ruck was a little slow last weekend and he failed to attempt his dangerous darting runs around the breakdown, so I would expect Laidlaw and Russell to test Wales here, taking the ball up that 9 and 10 channel, drawing in Biggar and making him work hard.
The effort from the Welsh pack in the scrum was incredible last weekend as they managed to shore up the Irish effort time and time again. The front-row did exceptionally well; Gatland’s choice to go with Evans and Lee at loose-head and tight-head respectively proved to pay off, and Scott Baldwin’s hooking ability allowed Faletau to get some clean delivery in the back-row.
Luke Charteris and Alun-Wyn Jones are an exciting pairing in the second-row, both offering something different, although Alun-Wyn failed to reach his full potential against Ireland, slipping off a tackle and in doing so making an uncharacteristic mistake. The back row combination of Tipuric, Warburton and Faletau provide a healthy combination of experience and athleticism.
Key player: Alun-Wyn Jones
Whilst the efforts in the scrum last weekend were second to none, the pack looked a little laboured at the breakdown on occasions. Alun-Wyn will be key in rolling his sleeves up and taking Scotland on physically, as the likes of Barclay, Gray and Hardie will be looking to impose themselves at the breakdown.
Vern Cotter has made only one change to his starting line-up that faced England last weekend, with Duncan Taylor coming into the centre in place of the injured Matt Scott.
If the game proves to open up, Stuart Hogg will be key in getting Scotland on the front foot, his counter-attacking threat plain to see. With the British & Irish Lion often left to his own devices last weekend, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland will need to link up more effectively with their back three teammate, taking Wales on from deep, forcing them into the contact area.
Taylor and Bennett will have their work cut out for them at inside and outside centre, and Finn Russell will have to re-find some form at outside-half if Scotland stand any chance whatsoever of some cohesion and organisation; the experienced head of Greg Laidlaw must provide Russell with quicker delivery than he did against England.
In the pack, Barclay, Hardie and Denton have the potential to cause real problems for Wales at the breakdown and the second-row combination of the Gray brothers could be devastating for the Welsh if they don’t manage clean line-out ball. The front-row of Dickinson, Ford and Nel performed solidly against England, but with their opposite numbers going into tomorrow’s fixture with a huge amount of confidence, they will need to step their game up once again.
Key player: Finn Russell
Cited as one to watch in last weekend’s preview of the Calcutta Cup, Russell goes into the second round with all eyes on his game management and all-round distribution. The question marks over Dan Biggar’s fitness mean that Russell has the potential to really take the game on in midfield, and a big performance from him will be vital in snuffing out the Welsh defensive effort.
Scotland need a win. After making such huge ground in the World Cup they fell frustratingly short against England at home last weekend, and they’ll be travelling down to Cardiff as massive underdogs. If Scotland manage to force mistakes from Wales early on, they have the potential to upset the rhythm and push them all the way.
However, the last twenty minutes will be vital, as Scotland will need to work hard to keep up with Welsh fitness levels and their home advantage. If Biggar is back to full strength and the Welsh pack hold up in the scrum like they did last weekend, I’d expect a brace of tries from the men in red and a comprehensive victory. Wales by 10.
By Daniel Jenkins
Follow Daniel on Twitter: @DanWJenkins
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images