When it comes to controversy, farce and an avalanche of statements, Brexit has nothing on Welsh rugby. In the midst of what could – you might now say should – be a glorious championship for the national team, the mother of all political rows has detonated.
Sensationally, the Ospreys and Scarlets were to merge amid the “Project Reset” that will reshape how the Welsh game and its regions will operate in years to come. We had enraged supporters, players and staff fearing for their livelihoods, and the Ospreys chairman getting the machine gun out and peppering the Welsh Rugby Union with bullets as he resigned in protest, before more statements were fired out confirming the merger was off.
From the outside, you sense Welsh rugby has something of the dynamite stick about it, that it is only ever a teeny flicker-flame away from erupting into a cataclysmic inferno. But this is bonkers, bare-knuckle stuff.
“The timing is not brilliant,” Warren Gatland said of the turmoil this week. In terms of understatements, that’s up there with Emperor Hirohito’s concession that World War II “has not necessarily developed in Japan’s favour”.
Thirteen of the match-day squad for Saturday’s trip to Murrayfield play for either region. These are international-class players who will either be retained or have no shortage of job offers whatever happens next season, but even for them, the situation must be grim. Will this heinous mess distract or galvanise?
Scotland are mercifully free of such monumental administrative squabbles but they are not without strife. This championship has been deeply underwhelming for a team and a coach with grand ambitions. Gregor Townsend and his troops have managed only one win over an insipid – and apparently sickness-ridden – Italy and two desperately poor defeats. They were suffocated at home by an Ireland side that feasted on their errors and steamrolled by a French team that have been called the worst in history in Paris.
That alone should dynamite the notion that’s been doing the rounds the week, the assertion that this is a free hit for Scotland and all the pressure is on Wales and Gatland and their tilt at the slam. It is anything but.
Scotland’s confidence looks painfully frail – how they need a scalp to inflate it again and how important it is that they conquer one of the heavyweights at Murrayfield in front of their own crowd.
Coach v Coach
Gatland’s record against Scotland is imperious. Ten Tests played, ten Tests won on his watch. Wales have long dominated Scotland, losing only four times since the turn of the millennium. Scotland’s most recent win came two years ago when Rob Howley was in charge with Gatland preparing for the British and Irish Lions tour.
That’s another thing. The Lions and Gatland’s management of them is add a little more needle to this fixture. Gatland picked three Scots for the 2013 tour of Australia and called up a fourth in Ryan Grant. He threw on Richie Gray in the final throes of the third-Test pummelling his team were dishing out to the Wallabies, but had, for whatever reason, decided to leave Grant on the bench rather than replace the spent Mako Vunipola a week earlier. Grant was the only substitute forward not used that day and it didn’t go down well back home.
Gatland didn’t take a single Scottish forward to New Zealand four years later – the first time that had happened since 1908 – and didn’t give any of the three Scottish backs he had selected – the joint-lowest contingent of Scots in history – a minute of Test game time. Frankly, it’s hard to argue with the choices given the calibre of those he did take and the results they achieved, but that didn’t stop Scottish fans railing against him. It’s tough to back a team that contains none of your players.
The New Zealander is one of the canniest and most successful coaches around. He is two matches away from a third Grand Slam, an honour that would set him apart in the pantheon of coaching titans. He did a number on Townsend in Cardiff a last year when much of the talk was about how Scotland’s mesmeric, machine-gun-fire attack would flummox the Welsh heavy artillery.
Scotland had a better crack at Wales in their out-of-window November Test but they couldn’t get the job done, couldn’t take their chances. They have one last opportunity to beat Gatland in his final Six Nations before moving on. He will fancy his belligerent team can bully Scotland and expose the flakiness so evident throughout this championship.
Player v player & key battlegrounds
Townsend has dropped Greig Laidlaw, his captain and most commanding leader, for Ali Price. Laidlaw hasn’t fired much this year, Scotland have been too pedestrian too often. Price brings less nous but a hell of a lot more speed, and with it a much greater running threat around the fringes.
Price has had a fine season but he and Wales have history. That shellacking in Cardiff was a more harrowing experience for him than anyone after he threw an interception pass to Gareth Davies for the first Welsh try, a mistake he repeated playing for Glasgow two months later, sending the grateful Scarlet tearing away for another score.
Price and Davies duel again on Saturday. With the World Cup looming, Price can give Townsend and Laidlaw an awful lot to think about with a big performance.
Jonny Gray is another who could do with a rousing display on his 50th cap. We know all about his relentless tackling but we haven’t seen enough of him galloping in open prairie, dominating collisions, breaking tackles and making off-loads like a world-class lock. In Alun Wyn Jones, the titan of Welsh rugby, he is up against one of the greatest second-rows the game has ever seen.
Hamish Watson bossed the Welsh back-row two years ago and is back from injury to claim a place on the bench. WP Nel is fit-again and so is Finn Russell, each a huge boost for Townsend. The devilish creativity and utter self-assuredness of Russell were grievously missed in Paris. Scotland cannot win games like this without their play-maker.
You fear for Peter Horne and Nick Grigg, an unfamiliar midfield pairing at Test level who have started only two internationals together, with Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies searing down their channels. Both Scots love the rough stuff – Grigg’s defence in particular has improved markedly – but they will have to be watertight. Parkes and Davies will be licking their lips.
And what a day for Darcy Graham, all 5ft 9in and 75kg of him, opposite the hulking George North on his first start. Graham is a ferocious little winger who punches well above his weight. He’s been in outrageous attacking form for Edinburgh, scoring seven tries in 13 outings, and with Sean Maitland injured richly deserves his shot against a bloke nine inches taller and 34kg heavier. Being David to North’s Goliath is nothing new to Graham – he was outstanding against Julian Savea in Edinburgh’s wins over Toulon and has a wonderful knack of pumping through tackles like a snowball gathering pace downhill.
Even with all the political shrapnel and all the tumult this week has brought, you can’t imagine a team led by Gatland and Jones, with seven Lions in their ranks, taking their eye off the ball so close to a triumph for the ages.
The Scottish cavalry is starting to muster with Russell, Nel, Watson and others returning, but has it arrived too late?
Watching Wales thunder their way to a brilliant and brutal victory over England, you wondered whether Scotland could live with the intensity of those collisions, the relentless bludgeoning of two monstrous groups of men. The recent evidence suggests not. It will take an immeasurable improvement and a performance better than any they’ve produced under Townsend to end Gatland’s reign of supremacy.
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