Scotland v Wales: Gregor Townsend's side must show sign of life
|Six Nations: Scotland v Wales|
|Venue: Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh Date: Saturday, 9 March Kick-off: 14:15 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC One, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru & BBC Sport website and BBC Sport app, plus live text commentary online.|
When Scotland brought a decade of failure against Wales to an end two years ago, there was a consensus in the post-match analysis that seems almost trippy now when you think back on it.
Everybody agreed with Rob Howley, the caretaker coach in Warren Gatland's absence, when he spoke of Scotland's clinical nature in taking Wales to the cleaners by the handsome margin of 16 points. If he mentioned their ruthlessness in putting away chances once, he mentioned it half a dozen times. "Ultimately, that was the difference," he said. "Scotland were lethal and we were not."
We need to update that now. Scotland used to be lethal. They used to have the capacity to create something out of nothing on a semi-regular basis. They used to be able to launch counter-attacks with pace and accuracy from all corners of the pitch, but we haven't seen that of late.
Of course we haven't seen much of a fit and firing Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell either. These are the two who can tie it all together. They've been missed. What hope exists ahead of the Wales game on Saturday is based on Russell coming back in at 10 and electrifying everything, but it's an awful lot to expect against a team with the sniff of a Grand Slam in their nostrils.
- How do struggling Scotland breach the Welsh wall?
- Can Scotland rise up against rugby behemoth Gatland?
Time for Scotland to up their level
The headline change is Ali Price for Greig Laidlaw. It was time. In Paris, in his 64 minutes on the pitch, Laidlaw carried twice for 12 metres. In 16 minutes, Price carried twice for 21 metres. That energy and threat is required now. The extra scrummaging nous that the returning WP Nel brings is also a boost. The bottom line here is that every Scottish player - particularly the ball-carriers - need to up their level by about a million per cent.
Among the pages of statistics from Paris a fortnight ago, there are some gems that illustrate the malaise that Gregor Townsend's side are living through right now. Scotland had five more attacking minutes than France. They had 12% more possession and their quickest ruck ball was 5% speedier than the hosts who, lest we forget, won the Test in a hack canter.
Scotland won seven penalties in the opening 28 minutes, the seventh culminating in a yellow card for Yoann Huget. In the 10 minutes that Huget was away, Gael Fickou had a try disallowed by the TMO and Thomas Ramos missed an eminently kickable penalty. Scotland didn't score. More than that, they barely even threatened to score. In that sin-bin spell, they had a lineout in the French 22 and they lost it - one of many small losses that added up to one very big loss.
And now some numbers from the Ireland game. In the opening half against Joe Schmidt's team, 73% of the Test was played in the Irish half and 37% of the 73% was played in the Irish 22. Scotland had 10 points at the break, Ireland had 12.
That Scottish ruthlessness didn't look so ruthless in the second half either. Time and again they got on the front foot and time and again they were undone by basic errors. They turned it over 19 times against the Irish and 17 times against the French. The key play in the Ireland game came when Joey Carbery burst through two Scottish forwards to set up the decisive score for Keith Earls. Missed tackles - in both volume and importance - has become a theme of Scotland's Six Nations
They missed 27 tackles at the Stade de France. If you're going to miss 27 tackles - some of them tackles that simply had to be made - then you may as well not turn up in the first place because you're not going to survive. The crime in Paris was that Scotland made France look good when France are no better than moderate.
A desperately needed win
Townsend wears his poker face well, but he's got to be worried. He has injuries to key men, for sure, but that doesn't fully explain why Scotland have gone off the boil to such an extent. A third defeat in a row on Saturday, with a trip to Twickenham to come a week later, could see Scotland head into their World Cup preparations on the back of four straight losses and a fifth-place finish in the Six Nations.
It's why Saturday is such a big game. Never mind that the championship can't be won. It was never going to be won. With Scotland's confidence levels somewhere south of Invercargill, a victory is desperately needed to remind everybody that this team is better than the version we saw against Ireland and France, that it still has a competitive pulse.
There's no Hogg, no Huw Jones (the 2017-18 version), no Sean Maitland, no Duncan Taylor, no John Barclay, no Ryan Wilson. That's six guys who would go straight into the team. Scotland can't afford to lose six players no matter who they're playing. The sense of foreboding comes in the feeling that they especially can't afford to lose them when Wales are in town with a Grand Slam to play for and with a record under Gatland of 10 out of 10 against the Scots.
Wales are on a historic run of 12 Test wins in a row. They are, says Gatland, a team that has forgotten how to lose. Among those dozen victories are a one-point win against France, a two-point win against South Africa, a three-point win against Australia and a five-point win against France.
In one of those wins against the French, they were 16-0 down and won. Against England they were trailing and won. Against South Africa they only hit the front with six minutes to go. Against Australia they hit the front with only four minutes to go. Their defence, their work-rate, their intensity, is outstanding. Their discipline in the white-heat of battle against England was exemplary. They conceded just three penalties all day - and one of them was an injustice.
Watson's return welcome
Gatland's teams - as belligerent as can be and as clinical as you like - have suffocated the life out of Scotland for a decade. The one time Scotland caught them, Gatland was on his sabbatical with the Lions and Howley was in charge.
The memory of that game is clear. Scotland's error count was as low as their confidence was high. They scored 20 unanswered points in the second half that day. Alun Wyn Jones, the great bear at the heart of the Welsh pack, is not known for throwing garlands at opponents - or team-mates for that matter - but he had a few for Hamish Watson's work at the breakdown. "He did a pretty good job, he was influential," said Jones of Watson's impact. In Alun Wyn Land, compliments don't get any higher than that.
Watson, just returning from injury, is on the bench this time. His reappearance is welcome because Watson has what's required - a ferocious aggression, a badness that is the absolute staple of any team that ever amounted to anything on this stage.
Given the length of the casualty list these past weeks, we can't draw any definitive conclusion as to where Scotland are at, but a sign of life wouldn't go amiss. What they delivered in the second half against Ireland and in all 80 minutes in Paris was grim. If they've got a performance in them in this Six Nations they're running out of time to produce it.