Murrayfield hosts a mid-table clash of two ancient rivals on Sunday, with both Scotland and Wales hoping to walk away with their first win of the campaign. Of the two, Wales would be most disappointed with their efforts, and still fancy themselves challengers to the title despite the poor showing in Cardiff. Scotland, while feeling somewhat let down themselves, will at see positives after a promising effort in Paris that could have easily gone their way.
This match marks a crucial turning point of the Championship for both. If Wales win, their hopes are revived, and Scotland are again cast among the bottom dwellers. If Scotland win, they vindicate the pre-tournament hype, and Welsh hopes are scuppered with only consolation left to play for. It’s a lot to be pegged on a match so early, but such is the nature of a truly merciless tournament that affords zero room for complacency or repose.
The opening chapters of Vern Cotter’s Scottish inquisition have been thus far received with tacit approval by his scrutineers, but he is a proud man and will know as well as anybody that performance can only get you so far – it’s results that matter. Escaping France with a victory would have been a coup on a grandiose scale, one he nearly pulled off. Taking a Welsh scalp at home somehow feels a lesser accomplishment, but given the result of last year’s debacle at the Millenium Stadium there could hardly be a more impressive turnaround in fortunes should his charges earn victory for the first time in eight years.
Maintaining continuity is clearly part of Cotter’s recipe for success, and both changes to the run on side are of the enforced variety, with a couple bench spots the only rotations. Euan Murray’s religious convictions rule him out of the match, thankfully Scotland’s only Sunday fixture, with the Geoff Cross promoted to start at tighthead, and Jon Welsh summoned to fill the gap on the bench. Tommy Seymour is ruled out with a hip injury suffered early on against France so Sean Lamont comes straight into the side on the right wing, with his size and experience preferred over de facto incumbent Dougie Fife.
After filling in admirably for Seymour for the majority of the match in Paris, Fife suddenly finds himself out of the match day squad altogether, with his reserve jersey handed instead to his Edinburgh teammate Matt Scott, fit again but short on match polish. Scott’s selection is likely a nod to the heavyweight midfielders on parade, with more than 200kg of Celtic beef set to collide between virtually any combination of starter or reserve. Peter Horne also drops out, with Greig Tonks tabbed to cover both flyhalf and fullback and provide a left footed kicking option.
Warren Gatland’s disgust with the second half in Cardiff was made silently clear after the match, but he has predictably opted to give his embarrassed soldiers a chance to redeem themselves. The only two changes come by way of concussion, with Samson Lee a late withdrawal and a certain someone passed fit but rested ‘for the good of the game’. The PR department has been working hard to spare the blushes of the medical staff, and whether it was Gatland’s decision or an edict from on high, it’s best for all involved that Liam Williams will run out in the no11 jersey and not George North.
Scott Williams takes the vacant backs reserve slot, and Aaron Jarvis is the man entrusted with holding the scrum down and proving that Adam Jones is best left retired. Scott Andrews provides cover, an award either well deserved or dreadfully disconcerting depending on who you ask. With both first choice tightheads out and none of the starting props especially renowned for their scrummaging prowess, we may actually see some first phase possession on the new Murrayfield turf. Referee Glen Jackson, just about as far from a scrum enthusiast as it gets, will be counting his lucky stars and praying that Gethin Jenkins has a stormer, if only to keep professional agitator Paul James on the bench for as long as possible.
Barring another moment of madness from Stuart Hogg, it’s hard to imagine this match resembling anything close to last year’s maiming. Scottish confidence has been rebuilt at record pace, and Wales are very much on tilt. Gatland’s men will raise their game, there’s no doubt of that, but have they been found out? Can Scotland cope with their power game, as England did, and offer a counter riposte? There just seems to be an air of inevitability to Cotter and his disciples, that success is on a knife edge, inching painfully closer towards fruition. The rugby gods have spoken, the winds of change set in, and Edinburgh at last has its rapture. Take Scotland to upset in majestic fashion by 3.
SCOTLAND vs WALES
Sunday, February 15, 15:00 GMT, Edinburgh
Referee: Glen Jackson (NZRU)
Assistants: George Clancy (IRFU) & Dudley Phillips (IRFU)
TMO: Simon McDowell (IRFU)