Six Nations 2018: 'Scotland think they're good enough, now's the time to prove it'
|2018 Six Nations: Wales v Scotland|
|Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff Date: 3 February Kick-off: 14:15 GMT|
|Coverage: Watch live on BBC TV, Red Button, Connected TVs, BBC Sport website and mobile app. Listen on BBC Radio Wales, Radio Scotland, BBC Radio 5 live, 5 live sports extra, BBC Sport website and app. Live text coverage on BBC Sport website and app.|
Walking round the streets of Cardiff on Friday morning, you half expected the entire population of the great city to be hobbling in sympathy with all of their stricken Dragons.
The injury crisis that has befallen the Welsh ahead of Saturday's Six Nations opener with Scotland has run the gamut this past while - from sore, to sickening to downright freakish.
Scotland are missing six props, three hookers, a second-row and two centres. Of that lot, maybe eight would make the match-day 23 and, perhaps, four or five would make the team. That's a high enough body count, but Wales take it to another dimension.
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Their casualty stock-take is jaw-dropping, not just in number but in quality and experience. Wales are missing 12 frontline players. Of the 12, nine of them who would have been in, or would have been very close to being in, the starting line-up against Scotland. Of the nine, eight are Lions. Of the eight, seven are Test Lions. Of the seven, there's a double Lions captain, plus the player of the series in New Zealand in 2017, and one of the stars of the series in Australia in 2013. Add them together and Warren Gatland has 629 Test caps sitting in the stand in the Principality Stadium on Saturday.
His leading try-scorer from the 2017 Six Nations, George North, is injured. His most dangerous broken-field runner from 2017, Liam Williams, is injured. His best player on the Lions tour in New Zealand, Jonathan Davies, is injured. His 10, Dan Biggar, is injured, as is his scrum-half partner, Rhys Webb. The captain and chief turnover specialist, Sam Warburton, is injured. So is the most devastating ball carrier, Taulupe Faletau.
Gatland is sending out 10 Scarlets in his team and all of them will be buzzing given their heroics in the Champions Cup, but how can Wales be the same? Scotland beat them at Murrayfield last season and nearly all of Wales' go-to men played that day. Even with their Lions, they got turned over 17 times, conceded 14 penalties and lost by 16 points.
Since then, Gregor Townsend has taken over the Scots and, if anything, they're playing it faster than they did under Vern Cotter. So many people have said so many nice things about the way Townsend's team goes about its business. Their ambition and elan, the way they get us out of our seats and on to our feet with their attacking rugby, the way they remind us, in an age of brutal physicality, of the majesty of the game and why we all fell in love with it in the first place.
Finesse combined with ferocity - a heady mix that has brought Scotland to this point. No more is it right to talk about their potential, no longer can we wait to see what they can achieve. They beat Ireland and Wales last spring, they beat Australia home and away in the summer and autumn and almost beat New Zealand, too, despite being down to the bare bones of a front row and despite playing the closing minutes with a rookie hooker filling in on the flank.
In a Six Nations sense, judgement day is here. It's time. This moment comes for all sides who want to leave the ranks of the triers and take their place among the contenders. That journey usually starts with a win away from home against a major rival. Scotland look ready and Wales, even allowing for all the class they have in the ranks, look vulnerable.
Of the team that will start for Scotland, John Barclay, another Scarlet high on life, is the only one who knows how it feels to win a Six Nations match away from home anywhere other than Rome. And even Barclay has only done it once (Dublin, 2010). In the entire history of the Six Nations, they have won on the road just six times and four of those were in Rome. They haven't done it in Wales in 16 years but if the great Scottish revival is to be confirmed as something substantial rather another illusion, then this a game that must be won.
Scotland have questions to answer, of course. Will their scrum hold up against what is billed as a superior Welsh front row? Will their defence, and particularly their line-out defence, be stronger than it has been at times in the recent past?
Wales will try to squeeze the life out of the Scots, but that's easier said than done. Scotland will want to play it fast and loose but that's not to say that they can't play ugly if they need to. Jonny Gray, Ben Toolis, Barclay and Hamish Watson are as happy in the trenches as they are in open country. Watson was extraordinary in this fixture 12 months ago.
None of the Scottish players need to be told of the magnitude of Saturday. They don't require a sermon on the dreary ramifications of an under-performance and a defeat. To a man they have said that only victories on the road in places like Cardiff will see them being taken seriously as championship contenders. In their heart of hearts they believe they are. They think they're good enough. Now, more than ever, is the time to prove it.