Wales v Scotland: Vile weather is a great equaliser so penalty count will be key
The forecast for Llanelli today is vile with a gale and heavy rain, though the rain at least may have abated by kick-off.
It doesn’t sound as if it will be quite as cold and nasty as Murrayfield was for the Calcutta Cup match back in February, and conditions can’t be as dreadful as they often were at the old Cardiff Arms Park where the mud was sometimes ankle deep. Bill McLaren used to recall Scotland’s match there in 1966 when our scrum-half, the indomitable Eck Hastie, ended up looking like “a drookit rat….. with the mud dripping off his eyebrows, his ears, everywhere”, and Bill thought “he must have almost drowned once or twice when he ended up face-down in the mud”, with, one assumes, a hefty Welsh forward on top of him.
So it’s likely that the conditions will go some way to determining how the game is played, even though experience of many nasty Friday night matches means that today’s professionals, with the help of the modern ball which doesn’t become a piece of extra-heavy soap as the old leather one used to, handle more securely than was usual in the old days. Indeed one has seen teams like Glasgow, Connacht, and Llanelli’s own Scarlets handling well enough to play fluent rugby even on a cold night with the rain lashing down.
Still, we can expect a lot of kicking, and Stuart Hogg will have to rein himself in if playing with the gale behind him. Otherwise a clearance from our own 22 is likely to soar away beyond the dead-ball line, and the Welsh will have a scrum within sight of our tryline.
The forecast may have influenced the selection of Blair Kinghorn rather than Duhan van der Merwe on our left wing. Wales kick a lot anyway, and with Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar at half-back and Leigh Halfpenny at 15, Scotland won’t need a siren to warn them that bombers are overhead. So it makes sense to have a second full-back rather than an out-and-out, and still inexperienced, winger – not that Kinghorn isn’t himself a mighty dangerous runner with ball in hand.
Wales had a pretty miserable evening in Paris last week, though in extenuation one should say that France produced flashes of brilliance that might have made any opposition look poor. Be that as it may, Wales have now lost four matches in a row and our players know from sad experience just how tough it can be to end a losing streak. They have made six changes, only two forced by injury, and while we have made four from the team that started against Georgia, three see the return of Hogg and Jonny Gray, fresh from winning cups with Exeter, and Finn Russell, with the only forced change being Blade Thomson replacing the injured Matt Fagerson. So it’s reasonable to suggest that this Scotland team is stronger than the one that beat Georgia while the Welsh one may be no improvement on the side that lost in Paris
Nevertheless, Wales started that match very well. When the French No 8, Gregory Alldritt, conceded a five-metre lineout by foozling the Welsh kick-off – well, he is half-Scots – the French clearly prepared to check a driving maul or a subsequent session of pick-and-drive. So their midfield defence got rather narrow, and when Alun Wyn Jones instead gave ball from the top to his scrum-half, it took only some slick passing and good running lines to let Halfpenny scamper over the tryline. Very nice, and a reminder that opportunities are created by doing what the opposition don’t expect. The Welsh had the wit to realise that a defence prepared by their own former defence coach Shaun Edwards is well equipped to disrupt and check a rolling maul. So they did something different and were seven points up.
It’s 18 years since we won in Wales. It was 20 back in 1982 when on a glorious Spring day we won 34-18, scoring five tries, the first a length-of-the-field one sparked off by Roger Baird’s daring run from defence, the fifth a classic outside break by flying-footed David Johnston. If we were promised sunshine and a dry ball today, I would be confident of victory, even by a similar margin, because I think this Scotland team is on the way up while Wales have rather lost their way since their fine World Cup a year ago. But vile weather is a great equaliser. Passes go astray. Steepling kicks cause confusion. Anything can happen. And, as is so often the case now, the result may even depend on which team adapts better to the referee’s interpretation of murky goings-on at the breakdown, and concedes fewer penalties. This is important for, despite Biggar missing three very kickable penalties in Paris last week, goal-kicking is one area where the Welsh seem better equipped.
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