Wales may be the reigning Six Nations champions but it is easy to forget that fact as they prepare for Saturday’s second-round match against Scotland in Cardiff.
The Welsh were physically overwhelmed when starting their title defence with a thumping 29-7 loss away to Ireland last weekend — something that could not be explained alone by the ongoing absence of several injured senior players, including captain Alun Wyn Jones.
Wales coach Wayne Pivac has made four alterations to his side, including giving a debut to Ospreys flanker Jac Morgan.
Pivac, explaining a lack of “wholesale changes”, said: “We know a lot of the players who were by their own admission below their own standards, deserve another opportunity. I certainly believe there will be more to come from this team.”
Wales’ Under-20s were thrashed 53-5 by their Irish counterparts last week — a result that followed the failure of any Welsh club to qualify for the last 16 of Europe’s elite Champions Cup.
But structural issues and arguments over the terms of a £20 million ($27 million, 24 million euros) loan negotiated by the Welsh Rugby Union to help the four professional regions cope with the economic impact of the coronavirus, have nothing to do with Pivac’s tactics in Dublin.
The former Scarlets boss deployed Josh Adams at outside centre, only for the wing to be exposed repeatedly when defending in his new role.
Adams’ leg injury, however, means Owen Watkin will line-up in the No 13 shirt on Saturday, with fly-half Dan Biggar retaining the captaincy.
Pivac has won 10 Tests out of 23 since succeeding Warren Gatland, a fellow New Zealander, as Wales coach following the 2019 World Cup.
His supporters point to last season’s Six Nations title as proof of success, but Pivac’s critics note that wins over Ireland and Scotland came against opponents reduced to 14 men.
Scotland, with just two professional teams (Edinburgh and Glasgow) to Wales’ four, started this edition with a 20-17 win at home to England.
‘Challenge of Cardiff’
Last weekend’s Calcutta Cup victory prompted Pivac to say the Dark Blues were “rightly” favourites to beat Wales, although it is 20 years since Scotland last won in Cardiff, when head coach Gregor Townsend was their fly-half.
Scotland did defeat Wales in Llanelli two years ago but Covid-19 restrictions meant the match was played behind closed doors.
Even though the WRU will be serving weaker beer and shutting the Principality Stadium’s bars during the second half, in a bid to reduce alcohol-related disorder following two pitch invasions by fans in November, a capacity crowd of 74,000 is still expected to get behind Wales.
Nevertheless, Townsend said: “We should be better equipped to deal with the challenge of going to Cardiff.”
Townsend has made five changes, including a new front row, but only one has been enforced, with Sam Skinner replacing Jamie Ritchie following the flanker’s tournament-ending hamstring injury.
“I maybe have said it is the strongest (Scotland) squad as well, so the noise isn’t just external,” added Townsend of the growing expectations surrounding his team.
Scotland conceded just one try against England at Murrayfield in another example of the impact their Welsh defence coach Steve Tandy has had since Townsend brought him on board in 2019.
“More New South Wales’ loss is Scotland’s gain, because he was at the Waratahs at the time, he wasn’t in Wales,” said Townsend of former Ospreys boss Tandy.
“His knowledge of the game is outstanding and he really connects with the player. The players enjoy defending and his influence is a big part of that.”