Silent Scott Johnson could mastermind Scottish victory over Wales
Finlay Morrison says Scotland's front row must try to gain an advantage in the first scrum of the match.
A former World Cup winner from New Zealand once famously claimed “you cannot beat Wales; you can only score more points than them”.
That analogy neatly sums up the feverish nature of the national sport in the principality in early spring, particularly when Wales are two games away from successfully defending their Six Nations crown.
Such is the media spotlight on the Welsh national team that every win is greeted like the second coming, whilst defeat leads to ongoing speculation, brutal analysis and criticism with players and coaches alike sometimes unfairly singled-out for treatment.
One man at the centre of attention this week in the build up to Saturday’s clash at Murrayfield, has previous experience in the goldfish bowl of Welsh rugby. Scotland head coach Scott Johnson who had spells coaching both Wales and Ospreys and is close friends with many in the visiting squad.
Many Welsh pundits had been expecting media mind games from Johnson in the build-up to Saturday’s game. But the enigmatic Aussie has been unusually quiet so far and most of the tasty sound bites have originated from the Welsh camp with Adam Jones, Ian Evans and Richard Hibbard having been particularly vocal over the weekend.
Having remained silent for the past eight days, Johnson and assistant coach Dean Ryan named their match day squad to face Wales and sprung a surprise by naming Glasgow’s Duncan Weir at stand-off in place of club-mate Ruaridh Jackson who is demoted to the bench, in a move designed to get Scotland playing in the right areas of the field.
Weir impressed in the Warriors’ Friday night victory over Cardiff Blues, scoring a try and adding three conversions before being replaced after 55 minutes. He will bring a much-needed uplift in tempo for the Scottish backline who have been outstanding in defence but not had much possession to play with in the three matches so far.
The other change from the starting XV which beat Ireland sees prop Euan Murray restored to the front-row at the expense of Geoff Cross who is back on the bench.
In-form Glasgow number eight Ryan Wilson looks set to make his debut having also been named amongst the replacements.
Having somehow managed to defeat Ireland with limited possession and territory, the hope is that Glasgow playmaker Weir will bring an added intensity to the Scotland attack as well as being able to punish Wales with his kicking, both for territory and for points. Although Greig Laidlaw’s goal-kicking has been near-perfect so far, his range is limited.
Despite winning two out of three games, Scotland’s weak areas have been there for all to see and the Welsh have been quick to publicly analyse areas to exploit in the Scottish armour.
Former Wales flanker turned TV pundit Martyn Williams highlighted potential areas of weakness in the Scottish side during a rugby show broadcast on Sunday, and one area of concern for Scotland is the breakdown.
In all three games the Scottish work-rate and technique at the breakdown area has been poor with only one or two committed to the ruck, whilst others loiter around aimlessly limiting the ability for Greig Laidlaw to deliver quick ball to his runners.
It was thought that Glasgow’s open side flanker John Barclay, who has not started for the national team in almost a year, would be reinstated to the back-row in favour of Rob Harley having now proved his fitness.
However Johnson has retained the same trio which manfully kept Ireland and Italy at bay in the two consecutive Murrayfield victories.
All the pre-match hype and analysis seem to point towards a Welsh victory, setting up a championship decider with England at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on March 16, but for all their weaknesses, there are areas where Scotland looks to have an advantage.
The re-introduction of Euan Murray to the front row alongside Ross Ford and Ryan Grant can gain an early edge over their Welsh counterparts in the first scrum of the match. From then the Scots can begin to sway the referee’s interpretation of the engagement which will result in penalties for Weir to gain territory or Laidlaw to kick points.
Also in selecting Osprey’s Dan Biggar at stand-off, Wales are likely to kick long into the space between Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser which allows the opportunity to counter-attack with ball in hand – an area which Wales have not been tested in so far this championship.
Murrayfield will be full to capacity this Saturday when the teams run out bringing the combined total attendance for Scotland’s home games to close to 200,000 which is a phenomenal achievement from the SRU given the Dire straits the national team were in just five months ago.
Scotland will need as much backing as possible to overcome a Welsh side which has re-discovered it’s confidence after eight successive defeats but can still be defeated if Scotland’s own newly-restored confidence and pride come to fruition again.
Scotland team to play Wales
(15) Stuart Hogg
(14) Sean Maitland
(13) Sean Maitland
(12) Matt Scott
(11) Tim Visser
(10) Duncan Weir
(9) Greig Laidlaw
(8) Johnnie Beattie
(7) Kelly Brown (captain)
(6) Rob Harley
(5) Jim Hamilton
(4) Richie Gray
(3) Euan Murray
(2) Ross Ford
(1) Ryan Grant
Subs: Dougie Hall, Moray Low, Geoff Cross, Al Kellcok, Ryan Wilson, Henry Pyrgos, Ruaridh Jackson, Max Evans
You can follow Finlay Morrison on Twitter @FinMorrison