Wales look to hit the ground running
February 6, 2009
Blues powerhouse Andy Powell starts at No.8 for Wales © Getty Images
Wales carry the unfamiliar mantle of tournament favourites into their opening Six Nations game against Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday, and in front of a packed house in Edinburgh their tournament aspirations could be confirmed or unceremoniously trampled by the resurgent Scots.
If Wales are to win back-to-back Championships they need momentum, but as anyone who saw their 47-13 loss to England at Twickenham in 2006 knows, the tag of champions doesn't always facilitate a flying start. Their form is good, with a morale-boosting 21-18 win over Australia at the Millennium Stadium in November signalling them as the front-runners for the European crown, but form isn't always a guarantee in a tournament that confounds and surprises every season.
Scotland will be baying for a chance to claim another Murrayfield scalp, with the improved form of Glasgow and Edinburgh in the Magners League and Heineken Cup a reminder to all that they may have more in them this season than a backs-to-the-wall effort in the Calcutta Cup match with England.
However, the injury monkey is firmly clinging to Scotland coach Frank Hadden's back. Northampton's Euan Murray, widely tipped as the British and Irish Lions loosehead, and hulking Perpignan lock Nathan Hines are missing with rib and knee complaints respectively, blunting what was becoming a formidable international pack. Sale flanker Jason White steps in to the unfamiliar second-row position while uncapped Edinburgh prop Geoff Cross will pack down in the front-row.
Wales, however, looked to be refreshingly injury-free until Gavin Henson became a late withdrawal due to a calf strain. Coach Warren Gatland will have to wait again to see his preferred centre-pairing of Henson and Cardiff Blues' Jamie Roberts in action, and Welsh fans will also be sweating the fact that Henson has never lost a Six Nations game in which he has started.
Henson's replacement is the experienced Tom Shanklin, in fine form for the Blues and Wales so far this season, while out wide there are plenty who can dazzle given the opportunity. With Shane Williams on one wing and his heir-apparent Leigh Halfpenny on the other, Wales have the pace and invention to harm any side should they receive a solid platform. Lee Byrne, the form fullback in world rugby, will punish any loose kicking while Stephen Jones and Mike Phillips start at half-back.
In the pack Gatland has opted for the same eight that downed the Wallabies, with skipper Ryan Jones starting on the blindside flank. The evergreen Martyn Williams mans the openside while Blues powerhouse Andy Powell, the find of the autumn series, packs down at No.8. Alun-Wyn Jones and Ian Gough are the locks charged with rescuing Wales' shaky lineout, with Scarlets hooker Matthew Rees also hoping for a better performance at the set-piece than his hit-and-miss autumn showings. Rees is joined in the front-row by Cardiff Blues' Gethin Jenkins and Osprey Adam Jones.
Scotland can look forward to this game and the rest of the Championship safe in the knowledge that they have a pack with enough grunt to worry any other in the tournament and, finally, enough class and invention in the backs to provide some incision. In Ben Cairns and Graeme Morrison they have a centre pairing that provides a classic combination of pace and power, and should Morrison improve his distribution then they will cause the Wales defence some problems.
With the talismanic Chris Paterson dropped to the bench by Hadden, Scotland will not be able to rely on his metronomic boot as they have done so often in the recent past, meaning that the back-three of Edinburgh's Hugo Southwell, Northampton's Sean Lamont and Glasgow's Simon Webster must step up to the plate and take whatever opportunities come their way.
Scotland's ace in the backs continues to be Edinburgh scrum-half Mike Blair, a worthy favourite for the Lions jersey, but he will have a torrid time on Sunday if he and fly-half Phil Godman fail to deal with the physical presence of Phillips and Powell. Godman will need to have one of his better games tactically if he is to negate the pacy Wales backline, and he needs to put his pack on the front-foot.
Scotland can win this game. With a full Murrayfield behind them and nagging doubts in the heads of those Wales players who trudged from the Murrayfield pitch after their abject 21-9 loss in 2007 Hadden's men can secure a famous win and put a cat amongst the pigeons for the rest of the tournament if they starve Wales of possession and see some invention from their talented backs.
If Wales come out firing however, Scotland's resilience could be all for nought. The Scots can be as stout as they please, but if they allow Wales the space to play to their brilliant best and continue to operate at less than 50% possession then you won't be able to hear the final whistle over strains of "Hymns and Arias".
Scotland: H Southwell (Edinburgh); S Webster (Edinburgh), B Cairns (Edinburgh), G Morrison (Glasgow), S Lamont (Northampton); P Godman (Edinburgh), M Blair (Edinburgh, capt); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), G Cross (Edinburgh), J White (Sale Sharks), J Hamilton (Edinburgh), A Hogg (Edinburgh), J Barclay (Glasgow), S Taylor (Stade Francais).
Replacements: D Hall (Glasgow), A Dickinson (Gloucester), K Brown (Glasgow), S Gray (Northampton), C Cusiter (Perpignan), C Paterson (Edinburgh), M Evans (Glasgow).
Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), A-W Jones (Ospreys), R Jones (Ospreys, capt), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), A Powell (Cardiff Blues).
Replacements: H Bennett (Ospreys), J Yapp (Cardiff Blues), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), D Jones (Scarlets), D Peel (Sale Sharks), J Hook (Ospreys), A Bishop (Ospreys).
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).
Assistant referees: Chris White (England) and Rob Debney (England).