Almost exactly nine months ago, Gregor Townsend sat in the Principality Stadium media room ashen-faced and reeling, wearing the look of a man who had just seen a ghost.
The build-up to Scotland’s Six Nations voyage was overwhelmingly positive. This squad had talent by the boat-load. It had savage, mobile forwards. It had a dazzling pivot. It had an arsenal of devastating strike runners. It had a November programme where the Wallabies were dismantled at Murrayfield and New Zealand were nearly – so very nearly – toppled. And it had Townsend’s brilliant rugby brain.
Many fancied them to rock up in Cardiff, where they had not won since 2002, and bamboozle a Wales team seen in some quarters as one-dimensional plodders, a spent force under Warren Gatland.
Scottish spirits were as high as they had ever been approaching a Six Nations campaign, but the reality was brutal and deeply wounding. In a game of chaos, Wales shredded them. Scotland’s half-backs, Ali Price and Russell, had two of their poorest outings as professionals, crumbling amid the Principality maelstrom. Wales pounced on the glut of errors, bludgeoned them up front, and inflicted an almighty 34-7 walloping.
After the match, Gatland spoke about how confident he had been, how all the talk of Scotland’s expansive play irked him, how he reckoned his players would “batter” their opposition and win by 20 points. For Townsend and his team, it was violent reminder of how ruthless the Six Nations can be.
Saturday’s Test will not have such a thunderous backdrop. Arranging out-of-window internationals for financial not sporting benefits is a vexed issue, but fielding an entirely home-based squad does throw up chances for newcomers and fresh combinations to flourish.
Price’s name immediately leaps out. On that wretched day in February, his intercepted pass led to the first of four Welsh tries. The ball was gobbled up and scored by his opposite number Gareth Davies – Davies starts again this time around.
Price suffered a gross decline in form at that point and by his own admission, put on a few too many pounds. The fact that he has been picked at scrum-half ahead of the scintillating George Horne and Henry Pyrgos, a fabulous performer for Edinburgh, shows how well he has recovered, but this will test his mental toughness as much as anything.
Russell does not have a similar opportunity to exorcise Cardiff demons – he will be tackling Vern Cotter’s Montpellier in the colours of Racing 92, where he is revelling – and Adam Hastings starts at 10. The Glasgow man is cut from the same cloth as his rival, an instinctive maverick with glorious attacking weaponry. He is arguably the Pro14’s form player, having beaten more defenders (25) than anyone else in the league and sits near the top of the charts for clean breaks and metres made.
This is a huge game for Hastings against a canny opponent in Gareth Anscombe, a fantastic midfield and a snarling back-row, before the biggest crowd he will ever have encountered. His quest is to wrestle the jersey from Russell, whose grip on it has been pretty unbreakable over the past four years, largely due to a lack of sustained competition.
“It’s not so much Adam pushing Finn, it’s Adam looking to get that number 10 jersey himself,” Townsend said midweek.
“He’s now going to play two internationals in a row after Argentina in the summer and we’ll now be looking for a response from Finn. We’ve seen that already from Finn this year. He’s got a big game this weekend against Montpellier but it’s a genuine competition for that jersey.
“His temperament, his confidence is what you want – looking to try things, looking to make things happen and being positive.”
As expected, Edinburgh’s lanky Blair Kinghorn gets the nod at full-back with Stuart Hogg injured. Club-mate Darcy Graham, a diminutive but deadly back-three player whose status was elevated from “training with the squad” to “full squad member” and now likely debutant in the space of a week, could make his Test bow off the bench. Luke Morgan, Wales Sevens all-time top try-scorer, makes his in the hosts’ number 11 jersey.
Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones form a potent and meaty Scottish centre pairing. Their showdown with last year’s breakout star Hadleigh Parkes and fit-again Lion Jonathan Davies, playing his first international of 2018, will be seismic, as will Ben Toolis and relentless Jonny Gray’s duel with Cory Hill and the wily Alun Wyn Jones in the engine room.
The breakdown too will be a vicious battleground. Townsend has picked three workhorse loose forwards in 22-year-old Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson, with captain Stuart McInally a fiend over ball from hooker. In Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty, they face three of the best around.
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Watch: Scotland flanker Jamie Ritchie looks ahead to Wales game
There are storylines galore on the field – from Price’s redemption mission to Morgan’s maiden flight, and Danny Wilson, in charge of Cardiff Blues for three years, returning to the Welsh capital for his first Test as Scotland’s forwards coach. Gatland reckons at least one of his pack, Blues prop Dillon Lewis, has a point to prove to Wilson, who “did not rate him that highly”.
Off it, the build-up has been dominated by tragedy and embarrassment. Gatland flew home to New Zealand after the death of his father but has returned to take charge of the team.
Then there was the Doddie Weir furore, the seedy mess both unions created for themselves by naming the cup to be contested on Saturday after the great former Scotland and Lions lock, who is battling motor neurone disease, without offering any donation to his charity.
It should be noted that the Welsh Rugby Union and, in particular, Scottish Rugby, do a wealth of fine work with the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation. The match was never explicitly billed as a charity game – rather a tribute to Weir, with several fundraising events scheduled – but that was the impression many supporters were under.
Failing to contribute any of their reported seven-figure profits from a Test bearing the name of this beloved and immensely brave colossus was morally wrong, and quickly erupted into a public relations catastrophe. The unions were shamed and pilloried. After fearsome condemnation, they will now offer a combined six-figure donation.
That prelude was distinctly unsavoury, but now the outrage has subsided, a compelling battle beckons.
Scotland took a shellacking here in February, but they are not weak-willed. Their wins over France, England and Italy later in the championship attested to that. Seven Tests, including a summer jaunt to the Americas have passed since that day. Less than half of the squad that suffered the opening-round humbling feature this weekend, yet the wounds are still nagging, and the sense of unfinished business palpable.
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