As Scotland make their way to Cardiff their fans remain divided following the defeat to France. In one corner the optimists taking the positives from another improved performance and in the other the pessimists who rightly point out that Scotland threw the game away. The Pollyannas and Private Frazers make valid points. Scotland threw the game away with a series of missed penalties and two moments of madness but they were also dominant for most of the game, destroyed the French set piece and scored two tries.
We’ve been holding off from writing these pieces until after the team announcement to try and focus on tactics rather than selection debates. However injuries have forced Scott Johnson to delay naming his back line. The half backs, centres and full back are unlikely to change with the wings the only areas still up for grabs as well as spots on the bench. Scott Johnson may be tempted to go with Jones, Evans and Cuthbert on Saturday just to try and confuse the Welsh.
Johnson says he has “form” to show he won’t blink an eyelid before throwing the likes of Fife and Cuthbert into the fray to widen Scotland’s pool of test players. Some may question that form with Johnson blinking so much when faced with the likes of Roddy Grant and Chris Fusaro that the strobe effect is likely to have caused a fit.
Wales have struggled so far in the 6 Nations and having been brushed aside so easily by Ireland and England it’s hard to remember exactly why there were so many Welsh players in the Lions squad. But then Scotland have had their struggles too and with neither in contention for the Championship the only prizes on offer are pride and redemption. With the continuing uncertainty around the future of Celtic rugby it’s hard to know who needs or wants it more.
So what do Scotland have to do win in Cardiff for the first time since 2002?
Scotland gave away thirteen penalties against France with the first three in very kickable positions. Wales might not be able to rely on Leigh Halfpenny’s boot but Scotland cannot give away so many penalties and expect to win matches. Despite the high penalty count big Jim Hamilton only gave away one penalty in the whole match. A personal best perhaps.
The biggest culprits were Cross and Grant, however they were able to stabilise the scrum as the match went on and eventually gained the upper hand. The Welsh scrum seems to be struggling with new engagement laws having been denied their usual tactic of engaging late and fooling the referee into thinking their opposite numbers had jumped the gun. Warren Gatland has shuffled the front row but Gethin Jenkins still starts. If Scotland can dominate the scrum like they did in the latter half of the game against France then Jenkins might struggle to stay on the pitch.
Elsewhere on the pitch Kelly Brown has issued instructions for players to back away from 50/50 balls unless players are confident of winning the ball. That tactic may prove tricky against a Welsh back row that thrives on competing at the breakdown.
2. Target Dan Biggar & Liam Williams
Scotland have enjoyed some success by targeting inexperienced opposition players. They rattled Tommy Allan and scored a try by (literally and perhaps illegally) taking Jules Pilson out of the game. Dan Biggar has had limited game time for Wales so far although he will benefit from having Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips either side of him. Still Matt Scott might fancy a run at him and it may bear fruit.
Liam Williams comes in for Leigh Halfpenny a full back and Scotland would do well to force him to deal with some high balls early on in the match. However if he is a match for anything Hogg and Weir throw at him Scotland will need to vary their line of attack.
3. Kick for the corner
Scotland’s line out was back to its former glory against France. Hamilton bossed his pack well and caused so much destruction in the French line that their backs gave up trying to make touch. Even the introduction of Ross Ford did little to dent Scotland’s dominance (squint throw aside).
Richard Hibbard drops to the bench in order to compare slimming tips with Scott Johnson and Ken Owens steps into the breach. The Welsh line out is no pushover but it’s not perfect either. If Weir’s kicking accuracy has gradually improved during the tournament and Scotland should be making more use of Hogg’s huge range. If Scotland can chase down balls as they did against France and cause enough interference in the line out they will find themselves in good attacking positions.
The Welsh defence can seem like a brick wall at times. However they have conceded tries in every game so far in the Championship. There is a way through and around but Scotland, and more specifically Duncan Weir will need to be patient.
Weir has thrown a few miss passes and it only serves to slow the attack and in one case gifted a try to the opposition. Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar are capable of throwing quick accurate passes to take advantage of any overlaps. If Weir keeps his head and allows those outside him to do their jobs Scotland will find a way through, around or under the Welsh defence.
5. Defensive line speed
Scotland’s quick defensive line speed rattled the French and denied the likes of Basteraud the chance to build up a head of steam. Wales were similarly stifled by a quick English defence last weekend. Wales have plenty of runners but their threat can be contained if they are denied an opportunity to stretch their legs.
Scott Johnson may need to consider the size of wingers on offer when choosing his final line ups. Jones and Evans both offer plenty of attacking threat but starting two Scottish hobbits against rampaging Welsh orcs might be defensive suicide.
Additional reporting and jokes Scottish Rugby Blog staff