Georgia last week was just the amuse bouche, now we prepare to dine on some tournament rugby, albeit in these “unprecedented times”.
Scotland head to Wales with confidence, as we’ve tended to do recently and ended up with a carton of eggs on our faces, but there’s a lot different this time, and not just in the Wales’ coaching set-up.
As if the concept of a Six Nations game in November wasn’t alien enough, the match will not feature the usual cacophony generated by the Millenium/Princinpality Stadium Choir, however both Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend and skills coach Mike Blair were keen to downplay the significance of the crowd on the match outcome.
“Those factors, you don’t know if they’re going to have an influence, it’s ultimately about how you play”, said Townsend.
“We’ll be up against a highly motivated Welsh side. They’ve got some great players, they’ve won championships, and whether you’re playing with 70,000 or 70 people, you want to win for your country.”
Blair, part of the side that lost the epic match of 2010 at the then Millenium Stadium, said “I don’t think it’ll be an advantage (to Scotland) in its own right, but compared to playing in a packed-out Principality Stadium, there is a big difference.
“Crowds, whether they’re for you or against you, create energy. A big thing for our players is to create our own energy in a very quiet Scarlets’ stadium.”
Chief among those energy producing, noise-makers will be captain Stuart Hogg, coming off the back of European Champions Cup and Gallagher Premiership glory in the past few weeks.
“I have been given the opportunity to play in a Scotland jersey and that is enough to get me highly motivated and ready for a game. There is no better feeling than winning in it. I have been given the opportunity to lead this team, and I have to make sure I am in the right emotional mind set and be ready to lead the troops into battle.
“I am enjoying my rugby. I enjoy playing every week. I have missed a fair bit of rugby over the past three years, but yeah, I feel good, fit and ready.”
Gregor Townsend’s match-day selection will see three Hawick “Teries” involved, with Hogg joined in the starting XV by Rory Sutherland and Darcy Graham.
“It’s a pretty special moment for us. I think it’s been 29 years since three Hawick men took the field together so I’m absolutely delighted. Suz has been working really hard over the last few year to get back to where is and Darcy is just a phenomenal talent.
“You can see how much it means to them when they’re given an opportunity. Suz was potentially our best player in the Six Nations and hopefully he can continue that form. Darcy is just a bundle of energy and I love having him around camp. He keeps everybody on their toes, myself included.” (Does this mean John Barclay has passed the “Scare-cam” mantle on to a padawan?)
While Sutherland and Graham’s form meant their inclusions were likely, there were a few debatable positions to fill. With weather conditions in Llannelli forecast to be as cataclysmically s**t as those of the Scotland v England match at Murrayfield this past February, Townsend’s opinion has been swayed by the likelihood of a scrappy affair, as was confirmed by Blair.
“We’ve referenced that (England) game a lot this week in terms of the conditions. , I don’t want to give a heads-up to Wales, but there’s certain lessons we’ve taken from that which we’ll look to implement if the weather’s as we expect tomorrow.
“Playing in tough conditions, finding kick space is really important, and we believe that Finn is fantastic at finding kick space and being able to execute.”
Try-scoring debutante, Duhan van der Merwe will have to settle for a spot on the bench, with Blair Kinghorn moving to the left-wing to accommodate Hogg at full-back.
“I think it is reward for how Blair has played for us in the Six Nations. He really took to playing on the wing and the way he defends as a winger. I thought he was one of our best players in the Six Nations, and if there is more high balls and kicking, then having played at full-back he can help in that regard.”
The Scotland no:8 jersey – a piece of attire seemingly trying to match Superman’s cape in cursing its wearer – will be filled by Blade Thomson, with Cornell du Preez keeping his spot on the bench from last week, as a ready-made replacement.
Both men have suffered horrendous injuries in the not too distant past, minimising their chance to impress on the international stage, but with Matt Fagerson again picking up a knock at Murrayfield early in the game, they are both given a chance to show their worth.
Townsend said: “Blade has a lineout presence and an awareness of a few of the players in the opposition team. Also, I thought he had a very good World Cup for Scotland and this is the first time he has been available since then. We see him having a big impact. We also see Cornell having a major role to play off the bench. He is one of our strongest ballcarriers and strongest defenders and given the weather forecast we believe a lot of the game will be around the tight areas.”
James Lang’s inclusion at inside-centre ahead of Sam Johnson may raise some eyebrows, but with Johnson’s lack of match practice compared to Lang’s, and the Quins’ man’s boot, gave him the nod.
Perhaps the most left-field choice, was at replacement scrum-half, where George “Horneito” Horne has been left out to make way for the uncapped Scott Steele.
While making note of crediting Horneito’s attacking qualities and the improvement to his kicking game, Townsend described Steele as “one of the best defending 9s in the world”, which former World Player of the Year nominee, Blair expanded on.
“Scott’s a great story. He picked up his Quins contract pretty late, and we just love his mentality. Very similar to George Horne and Ali Price in that sense, that competitive nature. The difference between George and Scott for this game was looking at the weather. Scott is a fantastic defender, not just tackling but he works hard on the ground and he’s a top jackaller for Harlequins.”
Looking beyond the Six Nations, but not beyond (BaarBaar) the elephant in the Zoom, Townsend confirmed that Sean Maitland could potentially play a part in the remaining autumn fixtures, despite breaching Covid-protection protocols.
“Sean was very disappointed in himself, he showed lots of contrition and understands the situation was a serious one. Everyone makes mistakes, so not being involved this week is a blow for him and he’ll come back into our squad when he is next available.
He has been a good player fort us over the last few years, he is close to 50 caps, he had an outstanding game in the QF when the Saracens beat Leinster and he was good again in the semi-final loss to Racing, so he is still in very good form and we do see him coming back into the squad.”