The first game of the 6 Nations kicks off in Cardiff at 14:15 on Saturday. Wales v Scotland is an eagerly anticipated game, not just because it is the first match, but because both sides are tipped as outsiders with a chance of Championship victory, and are keen to get off to a good start.
Currently, the model has the match on a knife edge, with Wales currently predicted to take it, 23 – 20.
For Scotland, who are being talked up as title contenders, this is a must win match. If they do win, then they will more than double their chances of a first top two finish (from 22% to 49%).
For Wales the game is less important, their chances of top 2 will go from 15% to 27% with a victory.
The sides have met 124 times in the past, with Wales leading the head to head by 70 to 49 (and five draws). They first met in the very first Home Nations tournament back in 1883 with Scotland winning by three conversions to one in Edinburgh (tries weren’t counted until 1890 – touching down only allowed for the team an attempt at scoring a point through converting, hence the name ‘try’.)
However, Scotland’s record in Cardiff during the 6 Nations has been absolutely woeful, winning only one game of the nine played since 2000 (back in 2002 by seven points, 22 – 29). In recent years the Cardiff matches have been getting closer, reflecting perhaps the improvements Scotland have made under Vern Cotter and Gregor Townsend and their rankings rise over the past few years.
So, with just the margin of victory predicted to be just three points, what’s going to decide this match?
Injuries is unfortunately one factor. Both sides have significant injuries, with Wales missing several big names from throughout their squad, and Scotland missing fewer players, but all from the front row. How will this affect the teams?
Wales will undoubtedly be weakened by missing British Lions of the strength of Warburton, Faletau and Biggar (to name but a few). For them, the chance to blood new players will be exciting, but unfortunately in a tournament like the 6 Nations, it is hard to find that balance between strength, experience, and giving opportunities to younger players. Losing one game can really affect the tournament chances and teams are often reluctant to risk victory by experimenting.
For Wales to win and compete in this years 6 Nations, their new blood is going to have to hit the ground running. It will be sink or swim for the Welsh.
Scotland are missing eight players, all from the front row. Clearly, this will affect their set piece, a part of the game that is vital for teams to build around. Without good ball from set pieces, it is hard to control the game. It is difficult to say how Scotland will cope, they did well with similar injuries in the Autumn Internationals, and of all the teams, Scotland have the talent out wide to make it work. They may also look to a recent Glasgow victory over Exeter for inspiration in how to play when not dominating up front, but international rugby is a big step up from club.
Either way, it is going to be a fascinating contest. For Scotland, who are being talked up as title contenders, this is a must win match and will have a major impact on their chances of competing for a top position. For Wales, the match could be a dangerous one, win and they’ll carry some confidence into their next tricky fixture away to England. Lose and their next 2 games (away to England and Ireland) will start to look very ominous indeed.
This is a big game, one that could define the Championship. With either side capable of victory it will be a match to watch for sure.