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Preview: Wales v Scotland

14th March 2014 08:10

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Greig Laidlaw Scotland v Wales

Tight affair: Wales v Scotland

With little but pride at stake as Wales take on Scotland; both sides remain desperate to end disappointing campaigns on a high.

Warren Gatland is not a man prone to uncertainty or excuses when times are tough. Nor does he panic and deviate from Plan A when it isn't bearing fruit. Perhaps then it was surprising to see the Kiwi make such comparatively sweeping changes to a side he has crafted and trusted for several years on Thursday. We shouldn't read too much into this selection - after all, there isn't a lot at stake in Cardiff this weekend - but it does hint at the first signs of the guard changing in this Wales team.

Gone is stalwart Adam Jones, a man whose mere substitution a year or two ago was enough to raise the heartbeats and dampen the brows of most Welsh supporters. But Jones, now 33, has struggled with the new scrum protocols this season. He isn't alone in that regard - just ask Nicolas Mas or Dan Cole - but there's no doubt the warhorse is not the force of old.

Richard Hibbard is benched too as he nears the end of a season best described as "bruising". The Ospreys hooker has established himself as one of Europe's most physical players, and the combined effect of his and Jones' absence from the scrummage will be important. The duo's exclusion from the starting lineup does, however, add to the typically powerful bench Gatland has at his disposal.

With Scotland's lineout suddenly hitting form, and Jim Hamilton proving an aerial nuisance against Italy and France for as long he kept bouts of rashness to a minimum, Wales' set-piece must be slick. Hamilton and Richie Gray are towering presences to match Luke Charteris' extreme height, and the Scots have functioned much better on their own throw since the introduction of Scott Lawson at hooker.

Wales undoubtedly have the better of the back-rows, as Scott Johnson sticks with the powerful but unbalanced trio that started last week. A huge performance is needed from captain Kelly Brown, who finds himself up against an all-British and Irish Lions triumvirate at the breakdown.

The hosts, whose backline from 11-15 is as entrenched as they come, have the edge behind the scrummage too. Scotland's centres are maturing and improving, but face a real physical challenge in Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies.

There are a couple of rather glaring mismatches out wide as the hulking duo of George North and Alex Cuthbert line up on the wings against the diminutive Max Evans and the slight Dougie Fife, making his Test debut. Evans can hold his own, but defensive frailty is the biggest blight on Edinburgh man Fife's game - kicking off one's international career against a British and Irish Lion roughly 10cm and 20kg larger is nothing short of a stern examination.

For the visitors, smart rugby is the key: keep possession, and pin Wales back in their own half; it's worth testing Liam Williams at full-back with high ball or three. The problem is that "Scotland" and "smart rugby " don't often mix. The Scots, as they demonstrated so perfectly against France, are blessed with the uncanny ability to shoot themselves in the foot. Even in the absence of Leigh Halfpenny, Johnson's men cannot afford to add another 12 or 13 infringements to their staggering Championship penalty count of 51.

Players to watch:

For Wales: Dan Biggar, the form man in the eyes of many a Welsh supporter heading into the Championship, has the chance to impress.

For Scotland: Worth keeping an eye on debutant Dougie Fife, who has enjoyed an excellent PRO12 season and has little to lose against such illustrious opponents.

Head-to-head: The magnitude of the aerial duel between four very accomplished locks will match the size of the combatants, and captains Brown and Sam Warburton will slog it out on the deck, but key to the outcome of this one is the battle between Ryan Grant and Rhodri Jones at the set-piece. Grant hasn't perhaps scaled the heights of last season, while Jones is better known for his carrying than his scrummaging. With a French referee in charge, this tussle in the tight will be pivotal.

Previous results:
2013: Wales won 28-18 at Murrayfield
2012: Wales won 27-13 in Cardiff
2011: Wales won 24-6 at Murrayfield
2010: Wales won 31-24 in Cardiff
2009: Wales won 26-13 at Murrayfield
2008: Wales won 30-15 in Cardiff
2007: Scotland won 21-9 at Murrayfield
2006: Wales won 28-18 in Cardiff
2005: Wales won 46-22 at Murrayfield
2004: Wales won 23-10 in Cardiff

Prediction: Both sides will be itching to right the wrongs of last week, and in Wales' case, defeat to an inconsistent Scotland team on home turf would be disastrous. The hosts should gain the ascendancy at the breakdown, and their superior firepower out wide will see them through. Wales by seven.

The teams:

Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton, 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Rhodri Jones, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Richard Hibbard, 17 Paul James, 18 Adam Jones, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Rhodri Williams, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 James Hook.

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Max Evans, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Dave Denton, 7 Kelly Brown (c), 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Ryan Grant
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Al Dickinson, 18 Euan Murray, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Al Strokosch, 21 Chris Cusiter, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Jack Cuthbert

Date: Saturday, March 15
Venue: Millenium Stadium
Kick-off: 14:45 GMT
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (Fra)
Assistant referees: Chris Pollock (NZ), Greg Garner (Eng)
TMO: Graham Hughes (Eng)

By Jamie Lyall
@JLyall93

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