Wales’ first of three home Six Nations games sees them having to take on a Scottish side oozing confidence after back to back Calcutta Cup victories over England. Wales are not the Championship winning side of 2021 and in many ways are a mere shadow of it. Their current form is more likely to put them in in danger of going head to head with Italy this year for the Wooden Spoon. However, playing in front of a sold out Principality Stadium crowd will be a powerful tonic for the Men in Red and as a result to write them off would be beyond foolish. Scotland will know that and come prepared. There weren’t too many positives last weekend for Welsh Coach Wayne Pivac’s men, but their cause hasn’t been helped by their ongoing injury crisis, and an opener against a red hot Ireland was never going to be a simple task. We can’t help feeling that Wales can’t get any worse than they were in Dublin and as the tournament wears on, especially now they only have one more away game left, their fortunes should improve.
Scotland will breeze into Cardiff knowing that they almost ruined Wales’ party last year, and on the basis of that controlled win over England last Saturday, they seem more than comfortable with handling big pressure moments. It also should be borne in mind that their track record away from Murrayfield in last year’s Six Nations was rather impressive as they won both of their away games against England and France no less. Barring the loss of back rower Jamie Ritchie due to injury for this match and sadly the rest of the tournament, Scotland look in rather rude health and more than up for the challenge that awaits them. There is little doubt that they are the form team of the two heading into this match, and that their Welsh opponents have it all to prove.
“Bash em Basham” – some genuine excitement for Welsh fans
Wales came perilously close to experiencing a 29-0 rout to Ireland last weekend. Wales looked out of sorts and clearly very few of them were aware of what kind of game they were supposed to be playing and how to execute it. However, new back row sensation Taine Basham was the exception from start to finish. Involved in every aspect of the game, he matched everything that Ireland threw at his colleagues for the full eighty minutes. He put in a staggering 22 tackles and missed none of them. He was a menace at the breakdown, made 14 carries and 34 metres, beat 2 defenders and in general was a complete handful for Ireland. In short, he was one of the few Welsh players that Ireland really had to contain last Saturday.
Unfortunately for Basham, the rest of the Welsh back row hardly fired a shot, even the impressive Ellis Jenkins. Their second row was for the most part ineffective not helped by a dismal 67% success rate in the lineouts and a scrum that simply got obliterated by Ireland’s powerhouse trio both in the the set pieces and the loose. As good as Basham is, he simply can’t be the one man Welsh forward army this Saturday that he was in Dublin. His colleagues need to follow his example as they take on what is rapidly becoming a rather accomplished and capable Scottish pack. His contest with Scottish firebrand and Six Nations player of 2021 Hamish Watson will be one of the highlights of the weekend!
Coming of age
We had an inkling that Scottish number 8 Matt Fagerson was destined for great things when he arrived in the Scottish camp back in 2018. Since then he has improved steadily every season. However, his Man of the Match performance against England last weekend, announced his coming of age at Test Level. He may not be of the same stature and prowess as say Ireland’s Jack Conan or France’s Gregory Aldritt, but like England’s Alex Dombrandt expect Fagerson to be causing havoc from now on leading up to the World Cup. He lasted the full eighty minutes and hardly looked like he’d really broken a sweat. He got the better of English wrecking ball Sam Simmonds and if anything negated the Englishman’s presence. Fagerson was the glue that held a very solid and effective Scottish back row together. He never missed a beat especially when Jamie Ritchie had to be taken off the field with injury and if anything made up for Ritchie’s absence by doubling his already considerable efforts. We have a hunch that his composure may get the better of his more volatile Welsh opposite number Ross Moriarty this weekend.
The eyes of the world last weekend were on the 10 and 15 jerseys at Murrayfield. To say that Scottish fullback Stuart Hogg and fly half Finn Russsell understand each other, is likely to be one of the biggest understatements of this year’s Championship. Hogg clearly trusts his playmaker and despite some questionable decision making in the past, Russell seems to have finally mastered the art of consistency in how he manages a game. Gone last weekend were those hail Mary moments that had been a hallmark of Russell’s game in years gone by and would have Scottish fans holding their breath or averting their eyes.
Russell was up against a fellow magician of rather extraordinary talent in the shape of England’s Marcus Smith. As talented as Smith is, he was on Saturday to Finn Russell what Harry Potter is to Albus Dumbledore. In short, Smith still has plenty to learn but Russell has mastered the full range of magic required to compete at this level under the most intense pressure. A similar analogy could be made between England’s Freddie Steward and Scottish Captain Stuart Hogg in the fifteen jersey, as another case of Master and highly talented but still rather raw Apprentice played out in front of us. The Scottish duo clearly understand and trust each other, and with Russell’s vision and sleight of hand and foot, Hogg and his back line wizards are able to utilize their considerable talents to the full. It’s a very dangerous pairing and looks set to rattle some of the world’s best over the coming weeks.
An axis that simply has to work this week – plain and simple!
Let’s be completely honest the decision to play winger Josh Adams at center last weekend was an unmitigated disaster. Adams is a great winger make no mistake, but completely at sea in the center channels. Watch any replay of last weekend’s game and defensively he is almost always positioning himself to defend out wide. Ireland read him like a book and simply ran inside him all afternoon. Allied to Nick Tompkins who was having trouble making any of his own tackles stick, Ireland found it to be open season in the center of the park – a fact that Gary Ringrose and Bundee Aki made the Welsh keenly aware of. One has to feel slightly sorry for Adams as this week he finds himself out of the match day 23.
Consequently, this weekend Tompkins needs to make sure his tackles stick and he reads the game correctly, something he failed to do on numerous occasions last weekend. His partner Owen Watkin will need to help anchor Wales’ ship in the midfield. To be honest we were rather baffled at his omission last weekend in favor of Adams. He played an instrumental part in Wales run to the semi finals at the last World Cup and although like Tompkins he is a potential liability on defense, the two can be a potent force on attack. They will have their work cut out for them this weekend as they go up against the exceptional Chris Harris for Scotland, and newcomer Sione Tuipulotu who made such an impressive debut last weekend in his cameo for the final quarter against England.
Who says size matters?
Winger Darcy Graham may not be the biggest man on the park but that hardly slows him down. He thrived out wide last weekend for Scotland against England, tackled like a demon and was more than willing to lend a hand in the rucks and when required by his forward pack. His try ably assisted by England’s hapless Luke Cowan Dickie sealed the deal for Scotland, along with the opening try for Scotland that he set up for Ben White. However, it was his tireless efforts for the full eighty minutes that most impressed us. His colleague on the other side of the park, Duhan van der Merwe, may have stolen the thunder at times with his bullocking runs, but the fact that Graham was literally everywhere and often doing things that a player of his stature should on paper have no business attempting, made him one of the stars of the show last Saturday. This weekend he is up against Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit who, despite clearly battling with an ankle niggle last weekend, is a player of the same caliber. However, given the fact that Darcy will be weaving chaos from every angle of the park, we fear the Welshman despite his remarkable talents may appear rather one dimensional by comparison. Either way watch that side of the park on Saturday.
It’s hard not to see a pumped up and clinically proficient Scotland, who seem to fare rather well on the road, get the better of a Welsh side clearly struggling with injuries and an identity crisis. The Principality Stadium will add lots of noise and passion, but these Scottish lads just seem far too composed right now to let it get to them. It may not have the billing of the France/Ireland game which follows it, but we can’t think of a better way to get your Six Nations Saturday started!