PREVIEW: Scotland v Wales

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 07:11
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SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: George North and his Wales teammates will all have the chance to earn a place in the record books as they look to extend their winning run against Scotland on Saturday and so revive their Six Nations title hopes.

The giant Northampton wing missed Wales's agonising 16-21 defeat by England in Cardiff two weeks ago, but has recovered from a dead leg and will line up at Murrayfield seeking to become the first player to score tries in six successive appearances since the competition began way back in 1883.

North, whose return in place of stand-in Alex Cuthbert is the only change to the starting side, launched his hot streak with a dazzling solo score in a 27-23 victory against Scotland in February last year and Rob Howley, Wales's interim head coach, warned: "We want George with ball in hand as often as possible.

"I suppose his try against Scotland 12 months ago sums up how he can change games and I'm certain he'll be looking to have a huge influence against Scotland," added Howley.

North, who has amassed 66 caps at the age of just 24, has scored three tries against Scotland, but has yet to cross the opposition tryline for his country at Edinburgh's Murrayfield ground.

Like all but one of his colleagues in Wales's matchday 23, he has also yet to taste defeat against Scotland. Wales captain and second-row mainstay Alun Wyn Jones is the only survivor of the country’s last loss to the Scots, home or away.

That came when Wales suffered a 9-21 defeat at Murrayfield on February 10, 2007, with Chris Paterson's seven penalties accounting for all the Scots' points (replacement hooker Ross Ford is the only survivor from Scotland's 23 that day). 

Wales have won a record nine in a row against Scotland since then, a feat beyond even their greats of the 1970s, who were beaten at Murrayfield in 1973 and 1975.

Nevertheless, the last two meetings have been tight affairs (27-23 to Wales in Cardiff last year and 26-23 at Murrayfield in 2015) and Scotland's improved form this season points towards another close encounter.

Vern Cotter's side opened their 2017 Six Nations account with a stunning 27-22 home win against Ireland and they were competitive against a physical France side before losing 16-22 in Paris two weeks ago. 

However, it remains to be seen how damaged Scotland will be by the absence of Greig Laidlaw, their scrumhalf, captain and goal-kicker.

Laidlaw was hugely influential in steering – and kicking - Scotland to their opening day win against Ireland, but the Gloucester player tore ankle ligaments midway through the first half in Paris and will miss the rest of the Championship.

Glasgow's Ali Price has come in at scrumhalf, with flank John Barclay, who plays his club rugby in Wales for the Scarlets, taking over as captain.

Scotland have two other notable absentees because of injury – No.8 Josh Strauss and wing Sean Maitland - but, like Wales, they boast a back three player blessed with X-factor flair.

Stuart Hogg has scored three tries in the opening two rounds, to become Scotland's record Six Nations try scorer, with 10 in total. 

The Glasgow fullback has scored in Scotland's last four matches in the Championship and only two Scottish players have ever scored in five in a row: Alec Purves (1906-08) and Johnnie Wallace (1925-26).

Scotland's big worry is likely to come at scrum time, having struggled badly in that key department against both Ireland and France. 

"Teams will be targeting our set pieces," acknowledged Gordon Reid, who comes in for Allan Dell at loosehead prop. "We need to front up."

If they manage to do that, the Scots could yet have a say in the Championship title race. 

"It’s a huge game," said lock Richie Gray. "The teams are evenly balanced and a lot could swing this weekend. 

"If we were to win, we would pick up a huge amount of momentum and confidence."

Players to watch: 

For Scotland: Once again fullback Stuart Hogg jumps out after his fantastic performances in the opening two round. Centre Huw Jones can cut open defences with his vision and pace, while scrumhalf Ali Price will have a lot of pressure on him in such a big game. In the pack, loose forward John Hardie can be a menace at the breakdowns. Locks Jonny Gray and Richie Gray will also have an important role in the line-outs and in the physical exchanges.

For Wales: George North is a try-scoring machine and he will try and give the Scots plenty of problems out wide. His partner in the back three, Liam Williams will also be a threat with ball in hand, while centre Jonathan Davies has the ability to unleash North and Williams with his vision and distribution. In the pack, lock and captain Alun Wyn Jones is one of the best in the business, while Justin Tipuric is a key man on the ground for the Welsh.

Head to head: The battle between Jonny Gray and Alun Wyn Jones in the line-outs will be an interesting one as will the battle between John Hardie and Justin Tipuric at the breakdown. Scrumhalf Ali Price will have to produce something special if he wants to upstage his opposite number Rhys Webb, while fullbacks Stuart Hogg and Leigh Halfpenny are both match winners.

Recent results:
2016: Wales won 27-23, Cardiff
2015: Wales won 26-23, Edinburgh
2014: Wales won 51-3, Cardiff
2013: Wales won 28-18, Edinburgh
2012: Wales won 27-13, Cardiff
2011: Wales won 24-6, Edinburgh
2010: Wales won 31-24, Cardiff
2009: Wales won 26-13, Edinburgh
2008: Wales won 30-15, Cardiff
2007: Scotland won 21-9, Edinburgh

Prediction: It will be a close one and home ground advantage might be the difference. Scotland will win by five points or less.

Teams:

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ali Price, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 John Hardie, 6 John Barclay (captain), 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Fraser Brown, 1 Gordon Reid.  
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Mark Bennett.

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans.
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts.

Date: Saturday, February 25
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 14.25 (14.25 GMT)
Expected weather: It will be cold and wet with a high of 10 and a low of just 3. There will also be a strong wind blowing.
Referee: Johnny Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)

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SIX NATIONS
MORE LOGS
Team P W D L Pts
England 5 4 0 1 19
Ireland 5 3 0 2 14
France 5 3 0 2 14
Scotland 5 3 0 2 14
Wales 5 2 0 3 10
Italy 5 0 0 5 0