Preview: Scotland v Wales
SIX NATIONS ROUND FOUR: Warren Gatland will be protecting an 18-year unbeaten personal record against Scotland when he bids to emerge from a week of turmoil in Welsh rugby by moving within one step of a historic Grand Slam hat-trick at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Wales were beaten 13-29 in Edinburgh two years ago but that was when Gatland, the mastermind of their current all-time record run of 12 successive victories, was on a sabbatical as coach of the British and Irish Lions, with Rob Howley in temporary charge.
Following wins against France, Italy and England, Gatland is on course to emulate his Grand Slam successes of 2008 and 2012 in his final season with Wales.
No coach has ever achieved three clean sweeps in the Five or Six Nations Championship, with the native New Zealander currently level on two with Wales’s John Dawes, England’s Geoff Cooke and France’s Jacques Fouroux, Jean-Claude Skrela and Bernard Laporte.
In his 12 seasons in charge of Wales, Gatland has won all ten of the matches he has contested against Scotland.
He last suffered defeat against the Scots in his final year in charge of Ireland – a 10-32 loss at Murrayfield in September 2001.
A potential Grand Slam clincher awaits his current in-form Wales side against Ireland in Cardiff on Saturday week if they can maintain the winning form they launched with a home victory against Italy on March 11 last year and which gathered momentum with their stunning 21-13 success against England in Cardiff two weeks ago.
Wales have not lost since a 37-27 reverse against Ireland in Dublin on February 24 last year.
Scotland, by contrast, will kick-off on Saturday following back-to-back defeats at home to Ireland and away to France.
But any threat of complacency may have been removed by a week of wrangling in Welsh rugby, with Gatland admitting his players had been “distracted” by failed attempts to merge the Ospreys and Scarlets.
Of Gatland’s 23-man squad, 13 are employed by the two regional franchises, who insisted on Wednesday the proposed deal had been scrapped.
Against that turbulent background, Gatland has made just the one enforced change to his starting XV, with Ospreys lock Adam Beard replacing the injured Cory Hill.
“The challenge for us is to make sure we’re not complacent or drop our level because there’s a large amount at stake,” said Gatland.
Scotland have been bolstered by the return from injury of two key players in fly-half Finn Russell and tighthead prop Willem Nel.
And Scotland coach Gregor Townsend has gone even further following a lacklustre 29-10 defeat against France by dropping captain Greig Laidlaw to the bench, with Glasgow’s Ali Price stepping up to the starting scrum-half berth.
Hooker Stuart McInally will lead the side.
Pete Horne moves from fly-half to inside centre, with Edinburgh wing Darcy Graham making his first start, in place of the injured Sean Maitland.
“We had two weeks to reflect on why things didn’t work over in France. We looked at every position, and we also reflected on the fact we’re out of the Championship,” said Townsend.
Price had a miserable time when he started against Wales in place of Laidlaw during last year’s Six Nations, gifting the Welsh their opening two tries as the Scots lost 21-10 in Cardiff.
But former Scotland playmaker Townsend added: “I believe he (Price) is more resilient after last year.
“He didn’t play as well for club and country during this period but physically he is in good shape, and we have seen a step up in his form for Glasgow since November.”
Players to watch:
For Scotland: The halfback duo of Finn Russell and Ali Price are certainly two players who can make a massive impact on the pitch. Russell is very creative, while Price may not bring that calm demeanour and leadership of regular scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw, his high tempo could ignite Scot’s attack. 21-year-old Edinburgh wing Darcy Graham, who earns his first start, will also be out to prove himself in the absence of Sean Maitland. In the pack, South African-born Willem Nel’s presence in the scrum is also a major advantage for Scotland.
For Wales: This group of players have been exceptional. In the back, the likes of fullback Liam Williams and the two wings George North and Josh Adams will again be a vital component in Wales’ attack. The trio were impressive against England and could cause loads of trouble for the Scots. Gatland again option to entrust Gareth Anscombe with the flyhalf role, however, his replacement Dan Biggar is certainly the dangerman when introduced. Like usual, captain Alun Wyn Jones’ leadership will be another plus for the visitors.
Head to head: The battle between the teams’ halfbacks will certainly be interesting. Scotland’s Finn Russell and Ali Price against Wales’ Gareth Anscombe and Gareth Davies. Both sets will be out to dictate the game and set a perfect platform for an attack. The line-out will be a good contest with the likes of Alun Wyn Jones (captain) and Adam Beard posing a massive challenge for Scotland’s Jonny Gray and Grant Gilchrist.
2018: Wales won 34-7, Cardiff
2017: Scotland won 29-13, Edinburgh
2016: Wales won 27-23, Cardiff
2015: Wales won 26-23, Edinburgh
2014: Wales won 51-3, Cardiff
2013: Wales won 28-18, Edinburgh
2012: Wales won 27-13, Cardiff
2011: Wales won 24-6, Edinburgh
Prediction: Given Scotland’s form this fixture could be a mere formality for Wales who face Ireland in Final Round. However, it will silly to underestimate the Scots, especially after their defeat to France and their home ground advantage. Nonetheless, for Warren Gatland there are too much at stakes and based on recent results Wales’ Grand Slam hopes will be alive and well following this fixture. Wales will win by five points.
Scotland: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Nick Grigg, 12 Pete Horne, 11 Darcy Graham, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ali Price, 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Jamie Ritchie, 6 Magnus Bradbury, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Willem Nel, 2 Stuart McInally (captain), 1 Allan Dell.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Ben Toolis, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Adam Hastings, 23 Byron McGuigan.
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Josh Navidi, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Watkin.
Date: Saturday, March 9
Venue: Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 14.15 (14.15 GMT)
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
Assistant referees: Luke Pearce (England), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Source: rugby365com & AFP