It is only a week in, but the 6 Nations rollercoaster may well be doing its third loop-de-loop.
Scotland go in to their second game, at the Millennium Stadium, with a line-up almost identical to the one that played England except for two major omissions. Euan Murray takes his usual religious sabbatical from a Sunday game and Dan Parks retired with immediate effect after the England game.
As if Scotland’s problems were not deep enough they must also face off against a Wales outfit buoyed by their last gasp victory over Ireland.
This one looks like it will be a gambler’s nightmare. Wales are favourites, sure, but how will the game take shape? Scotland play the same pack that struggled in the scrum against England, but they are up against an eight that are now missing the bulk and grunt of tip-tackling Bradley Davies and the might of Sam Warburton. The ref may focus a lot of attention on the match-up between Geoff Cross and the freshly fit Gethin Jenkins and who the inevitable free kicks and penalties go to will depend entirely on which pack is going forward.
Wales struggled in the lineout and Scotland’s unit will certainly hope to dominate there.
Scotland also only slipped off two tackles against England, so will be hopeful of more of the same. In truth the Welsh attacks may be more brutal, though. The style Wales play means that the forwards work as ‘forwards’ only, running designated pods at pace. It is the same wearying style that the All Blacks use and that Sale Sharks try to play with.
This means that Scotland’s pack will have to match the relentless work of the Welsh in attack and consistently pop up to tackle their opposite man. If they want their defence to be spot on again they will have to ensure that they absorb dynamic forward drives and also ensure that they have man on man in the backline defence.
With this Scotland have tried to match the bulk in the middle of Wales’ backline, but they have to be prepared for George North looking infield for work. With this the back three must be more alert because as North and Halfpenny crash into lines between the centres Rory Lamont may have to race up and the lonely Scots winger will have to fly round behind the first line of defence.
This is why the 6 Nations is so violently unpredictable. Every game poses a different threat. England won with a fortuitous charge down and some unimaginative rugby. With Wales Scotland face an imaginative and relentless attack of forwards heading for the front foot and a backline able to slip the ball to quick men either side of the centres.
Scotland’s defence may have to be sharper than it was against the Auld Enemy, but it was good. Here they will be confident. They do, however, need more variety in their own backline attack. Front foot is the key for Scotland. If their back-row can make quick gains wider out than in the last game –say at Priestland’s outside shoulder –and then zip the ball in front or behind Sean Lamont, they have a chance of creating that elusive score.
It is a familiar track, but the loops all seem to have changed. The great thing about this tournament is that the issues are always unexpected. Bradley Davies’ hot-headed attack means that his impressive carrying is not an issue for Scotland. Scotland start Greig Laidlaw for the first time in his career, but he is working with an unfamiliar partner in Chris Cusiter. Warburton and Cuthbert look like being out. We get to see the muscular match up of Faletau versus Denton.
We won’t know what we’re getting until the game starts. One thing is for sure, though: the pace of this game will be ferocious. Can Scotland hang on for 80 minutes and create the same amount of scoring opportunities they did against England?
If they get in behind the blitz can Scotland make the pass that needs to be made?