A game amongst political turmoil, Scotland vs Wales
When I first turned my thoughts to writing this piece on Monday, I was naïve enough to think this game would be all anyone in Wales would be talking about this week. Well it’s not turned out quite like that, but the fact remains Wales are playing Scotland this weekend. It’s a fixture that, if Wales come out on top, could set up a huge Grand Slam Saturday in Cardiff next week.
It seems surreal, even in the context of Welsh rugby’s perennial theatre of the absurd, that it has become a completely forgotten test match. Wales’s team announcement, brought forward by two days to Tuesday and announced instantly, was pretty much ignored as it came at the height of the hostilities between – well everyone really.
While we’re briefly in the calm eye of the Welsh regional hurricane (at the time of writing at least!) let’s at least try to unpick what was set to be a fascinating encounter even before this week’s chaos.
Scotland the Brave
Ever since the days of proud Edward’s army, the Scots have loved nothing more than battering would-be invaders who fancied themselves a bit, sending them homewards to think again. This tradition is in rude health at Murrayfield, where Scotland have won 12 of their past 15 games. The losses have come against New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa – no shame in that. And in that run the scalps claimed by Scotland include England, Australia and crucially – Wales.
But the current Scotland squad are looking a little battered and bruised themselves, which has contributed to a bitterly disappointing campaign to this point. Barclay, Hogg and Huw Jones will all miss the encounter with Wales, but the return on their talismanic fly-half Finn Russell will introduce an element of the unknown that will unsettle Wales and give Scotland hope.
As for Wales, before this week you’d say they were as settled as they’d ever been. Twelve wins on the bounce, a virtually unchanged team (Adam Beard returning for the injured Cory Hill the only change) and an historic win against England that erased the memories of two pretty average displays against France and Italy.
Last week the message from the Welsh camp was all about avoiding complacency, which is always a worrying sign because it means the camp feels complacent. In a strange way, the events of this week will have helped with that. No one is talking about complacency now, everyone is wondering how much the chaos will affect the Welsh players’ focus and whether they can unite behind one flag when their employers are at each other’s throats. It’s certainly a worry, but you’d hope there’s enough experience in the camp to deal with these issues and keep focus. Only time will tell though.
Wales’s key men
Wales have only made one change but it’s a significant one. Adam Beard is a young man whose growing reputation will soon match his gargantuan frame. But he had a sticky start to this Six Nations. The Welsh lineout didn’t so much creak in Paris and Rome as collapse and roll up in a ball crying. A lost Welsh lineout in the last play in Paris even threatened to spoil the greatest second half comeback in Six Nations history. As the lineout caller, Beard took the fall and was replaced by Cory Hill for the England game. While by no means perfect, the lineout was much improved in the third round. Add to this Hill’s dynamic display around the field that resulted in a crucial try and you can see why his ankle injury was seen as such a blow.
It’s always an odd thing to be dropped by choice and then return just one game later through necessity, and Beard will certainly feel the pressure that brings. He needs to get a handle on the lineout, Wales can’t afford to lose as much of their own ball as they did in the first two rounds. Beard was also accused of being a bit sluggish around the park in Paris, and when compared to Hill you can see why. But Beard does have one big thing in his favour. People say that Wales have forgotten how to lose, but in Beard they have a player who has never learned. He was never tasted defeat in his 11 test caps, and that has to count for something.
Hadleigh Parkes is another player who has struggled to live up to his stellar reputation recently. But against England he made a quiet return to form. He made one high-profile error when he got isolated and allowed Tom Curry to turn him over for England’s only second half points, but other than that his belligerent running made real inroads into the English defence. Having Parkes back to his best could be just the lift Wales need to carry them to victory in Edinburgh.
He’s number 10, so we’ll always be talking about him, but Gareth Anscombe’s place really has come under pressure after a barnstorming performance off the bench from Dan Biggar. But Anscombe has put the Paris horror show behind him and was effective against England. Expect him to be another one whose stature grows in this and the final round.
It’s inevitable that this week’s chaos will have affected the Welsh camp but impossible to predict how. Will the distractions have led to a loss of focus, a drop off in intensity in training and a 5% dip in performance? That would be enough to let a dangerous Scotland team in. Or will it have galvanised the squad, brought them even closer and left them determined to take out their frustrations on their hosts on Saturday? Perhaps optimistically, I’m going for predict the latter. The Welsh are no strangers to adversity and can even thrive on it. I’m more optimistic about this game than I was on Monday and I believe Wales will pull together and deliver a handsome win this weekend.