You’d never have predicted a week ago that Saturday’s Scotland versus Wales clash at Murrayfield would be the pick of the Guinness Six Nations round two matches. With England expected to see off the Scots and the Irish backed to grind down the Welsh, the script was that the Sunday Ireland-France meeting in Dublin would surely dominate the focus. 

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Not so. Wins for unfancied Scotland and Wales have resulted in their Edinburgh head-to-head jumping to the head of the queue of must-see games this weekend and unless the encounter is drawn, one of these little tipped teams will be heading into round three in a couple of weeks’ time with a Grand Slam still in their sights. Incredible. 

It wasn’t pretty watching these teams slug it out 15 weeks ago in Llanelli for a minor placing in the delayed finished to the 2020 championship, but their latest encounter has the potential to be a thing of beauty in the sense that one of them will still have it all to play for later in this month’s round three fixtures, quite an unforeseen development.

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George North and Jamie Ritchie appear on RugbyPass Offload

Here are some of the more pertinent issues RugbyPass is watching out for as two of the championship’s three remaining unbeaten sides fight it out with so much at stake:

DOUBLE TROUBLE 
Murrayfield isn’t much of a fortress, Scotland losing four of their past nine outings there and beaten last time out versus the French in November. Three of those losses – to England, Wales and Ireland – took place in front of sold-out crowds so it was curious to hear Gregor Townsend dwell on the issue that having no fans present is a “threat” for the Scots this weekend. 

It shouldn’t. Every side is now used to playing behind closed doors. Instead, the prime threat for Scotland is the age-old problem of failing to back up a big win by going out and winning all over again the week after. 

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Last week’s startling pre-game fact was how it was 1983 when Scotland had last triumphed at the home of English rugby. This week’s standout statistic is how the Scots haven’t managed to win their first two games in the championship since 1996. Compare that to England winning their first two games on 18 occasions in the 24 campaigns since then, France 13, Ireland eight and Wales five. 

This back-to-back famine illustrates the massive hurdle now in front of Scotland who lost to Ireland at home in 2019 and away to France in 2017 on the two most recent occasions they made a winning start to the championship before last weekend’s howitzer of a triumph away to England. It’s surely high time for them do something they haven’t achieved in 25 years and finally double-up again. 

NAUGHTY RUCKING 
Reflecting on Scotland’s 14-10 low frills win over the Welsh at Llanelli at the end of October, what stood out was the much quicker ball they were able to generate at the ruck. 

The Scots shifted 44.59 per cent of their possession in the crucial zero-to-three seconds ruck recycle window compared to Wales’ 26.56 per cent, while the Scots also only lost two rucks to Wales’ seven. Wales also conceded eleven of their 16 penalties at the ruck compared to Scotland giving up just two of their six penalties there.

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Townsend has stressed: “Wales are an improved team since the autumn”. They are in the sense that they have travelled north having won three of their last four games, quite a change to the six-game losing streak they were in the middle of suffering when the Scots last played them.

However, if last weekend’s ruck statistics are to be a factor in determining this Saturday’s result, then the force is leaning Scotland’s way. The Scots, who had lock Scott Cummings involved in a massive 45 attacking rucks, were limited by England to recycling just 37.84 per cent of their ruck ball in the zero-to-three seconds window compared to Wales’ 45.95 per cent figure versus Ireland, but the good news ended there for Wales. 

Wayne Pivac’s side lost five rucks and conceded ten of their eleven penalties at the ruck compared to Townsend’s players losing just a single ruck and conceding just two of their six penalties at the breakdown. It suggests Wales are in a need of a huge improvement against the better-disciplined Scots. 

CONTRASTING MOTMs
It said much about the different methodology of their respective round one wins that Scotland had a man of the match in full-back Stuart Hogg while Wales’ standout performer, as chosen by the tournament sponsors, was loosehead Wyn Jones. 

Whereas Hogg’s display showcased his usual star talents, his tactical kicking and his ability to gain huge yardage carrying possession, what got Jones’ notice were some untypical prop-type contributions. For instance, he made 53 metres off a dozen carries and got in five passes.

These were big figures compared to Ireland’s Cian Healy (eleven metres for three carries and zero passes), England’s Ellis Genge (seven metres for two carries and one pass) and Scotland’s Rory Sutherland (28 metres from seven runs and zero passes).  

Jones definitely fits into the unsung heroes category but Scotland also have performers of that ilk. While so much chatter was about the likes of Hogg, Finn Russell, Cameron Redpath and the flankers, the Test level potency of Duhan van der Merwe is quite an attraction. His decisive try last weekend was his fourth in five Test starts, highlighting him as a danger going up against Louis Rees-Zammit.

SIX-DAY MYTH
There has been a focus on the supposed hardship Wales are shouldering having to play another Test match just six days after their previous fixture. The physicality of that win over Ireland forced the Welsh to alter their training week, to dwell more on classroom work and team meetings earlier in the week to give players an extra recovery day before a Wednesday run through and then their only full-on training session of the week on Thursday afternoon before travelling. 

It sounds like a rush job for a team that has lost all four of its previous away game in the Pivac era, conceding 24, 33, 38 and 32 points in Dublin, London, Paris and Dublin again. However, this six-day turnaround doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a recipe for a guaranteed defeat judging by the results of recent Six Nations six-dayers. 

Last year England won away to Scotland six days after they had lost in France. While Ireland lost to Wales in 2019 six days after defeating the French at home, France recovered to beat Italy in Rome, and in 2018 England beat Wales six days after winning against Italy. As for Wales’ previous Six Nations six-day turnaround, they followed up a 2018 home win over the Italians by also beating the French in Cardiff six day later.      

GLASS-HALF-FULL
It was widely highlighted how Wales took the field in Cardiff last Sunday with an XV boasting 874 caps, making it the most experienced team ever fielded by them, and it is curious how having to make five changes to that starting XV for Murrayfield hasn’t shorn them of that nous as they will start against Scotland with a total of 864 caps. 

They’re not exactly an ancient Dad’s Army group either as the average age checks in at 28.8, only slightly older than the 27.0 average age of a Scottish XV who are considerably less experienced with a combined 417 caps total. This continued wealth of experience despite changing one-third of his team has Pivac in glass-half-full mode.

“We have got experience there. It’s really just the midfield and the jackal threats we were looking to put into the game, we don’t have as many. It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said of the enforced changes all caused by a wide spectrum of injuries – ACL, hamstring, two head knocks and a foot problem. Can that weight of experience now make a telling difference?

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