Wales v Scotland: Head-to-Head
Popular opinion is Scotland threw away their Calcutta Cup game last weekend, and will no doubt be looking to improve their performance this time around. Conversely plaudits rained in from all sides for a dogged Welsh performance that earned a win on the road in Dublin on Sunday. Here's how the teams line up:
Gethin Jenkins v Geoff Cross
Jenkins returns to the Welsh front row after being side-lined by injury. Whether or not this quick return will be too soon remains to be seen, but there's no rugby fan who can deny Jenkins is one of the best props in the world. His agility and quick-thinking should cause problems for a Scotland pack who at times looked disorganised last time out. Cross comes in as a replacement for Euan Murray who withdrew from the game for religious reasons. Scotland will be hoping Cross can emulate some of the strong form he's shown for Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup this season; the Scottish scrum will need to front up and improve from last week to compete with Wales.
Huw Bennett v Ross Ford
Ford was one of the stand-out performers for Scotland against England. His accuracy at the line out is something Bennett and co. can aspire to. Bennett is a ferocious competitor in the loose and is a valuable asset to the Welsh defensive line but the line out is an area which has plagued Wales for years. Against Ford and the likes of Gray and Denton Bennett will need to be more accurate with his jumpers to gain any parity from these set pieces.
Adam Jones v Allan Jacobsen
Jones is established as one of the best front-rowers in the world and will be fancied as favourite against a Scottish scrum that could not impose itself effectively on England. Jones is always a threat with ball in hand and at breakdowns as well and will no doubt fancy taking on the likes of Jacobsen in the loose. Jacobsen was a physical presence throughout general play last week, but the Scottish scrum was not as imposing as he might have hoped, and his indiscipline at times cost Scotland valuable yards. Like most of the Scottish backs, Jacobsen will need to eliminate silly errors to threaten Wales.
Ryan Jones v Jim Hamilton
Jones moves to lock due to the inclusion of Dan Lydiate in the Welsh side. A somewhat unknown position at international level for him, Jones should get more opportunities to pick-and-drive from this position. Jones will have his work cut out dealing with the physically imposing Hamilton, who made a break that set up one of Scotland's many chances last weekend. He faded throughout the game, a fact which could vindicate the gruelling fitness camps at Gdansk for Wales; Jones was an ever-present workhorse against Ireland last week. His almost-try (was it or wasn't it?) epitomised the improvement Jones has seen during this season, reminiscent of his headline-grabbing Six Nations debut back in 2005.
Ian Evans v Richie Gray
Evans was a solid figure against the dynamic Irish pack last weekend and deserves his place in the first XV. He's mounted a successful comeback after many injuries and looks to be improving with every international game. Gray is surely one of the most impressive of the Scottish players; his great World Cup form seems to have carried on to the Six Nations. Gray was an ever-present in the Scottish line out last week and his tackling work is second to none. The athletic lock will be a threat both in the loose and at the set piece for Scotland.
Dan Lydiate v Ross Rennie
Rennie was at fault as much as any of the Scots for throwing away chances last Saturday at Murrayfield and will need to cut the errors out of his game if Scotland are to compete. The return of Lydiate should bolster Wales immensely, particularly at the breakdown where Lydiate is at his world-class best. What Lydiate offers in attack arguably Rennie offers more in attack, and if the Scottish pack can make some of their chances stick Lydiate will need to put in a few trademark tackle-jackles to stop them.
Sam Warburton v Alasdair Strokosch
Strokosch was one of the players guilty of slaughtering a try-scoring chance last week after putting an offload from Gray to the ground with the line practically at his mercy. He will need to be more clinical in the loose if he is to make a positive impact. However, Strokosch was impressive both at the breakdowns and in set-piece play against England and should help bolster Scotland's impressive line-out. Warburton's performances are often impossible to describe without using multiple superlatives, and his game goes from strength to strength with every game. A dead-leg in the Ireland game has luckily been cured and Warburton will look to lead the Welsh team into a no-doubt physical battle from the front.
Toby Faletau v David Denton
A mouth-watering battle of two of the most exciting back-row players in the championship. Faletau has been a sensation for Wales since his hugely impressive performances in New Zealand last year; Denton seemed at times to be a one-man team against the English last weekend at Murrayfield. Which of these two will emerge victorious is a difficult question to address, as there are so many outside factors to consider: the respective performances of the front-fives, the quality of ball at the breakdowns and essentially the type of game that unravels. With the abrasive defensive back three Wales have at the moment it's hard to envisage Denton being given the space to break he was presented with last week, especially with the imposing figure of Faletau opposing him.
Mike Phillips v Chris Cusiter
Man of the Match last week, Phillips has come into his own in the last few months; seeing off any potential competition for the 9 shirt from Lloyd Williams, Tavis Knoyle and Rhys Webb. Phillips's imposing physical presence serves Wales well at the breakdown and should set up an interesting contest between him and Cusiter, who supplied the wasteful Scottish backs with quick and accurate ball last weekend. Whichever scrum half is functioning behind the dominant pack should in theory come out on top, but Cusiter will need to be alert to some of Phillips's signature dummy-breaks to stop Wales advancing.
Rhys Priestland v Greig Laidlaw
All the talk in the lead up to this game has been about the surprise retirement of Dan Parks, and no doubt Parks will be a buzz-word throughout the commentary of the match. As great a servant as Parks was, Laidlaw's introduction in last week's game provided Scotland with a new impetus and his promotion to first-choice 10 can only be a good thing for the Scots. His opposite number Priestland had a mixed bag of fortunes last weekend in his first game back after injury, but is sure to improve this week and be back to his level-headed best controlling the game. If the kicking duties are handed to Leigh Halfpenny Priestland's open play should reap the rewards.
George North v Lee Jones
George North's superstar status was born last weekend in a barn-storming performance against Ireland. There are those who are claiming his ferocious hand-off on Fergus McFadden at the Aviva Stadium is the new Gavin Henson on Mathew Tait or Jonah Lomu (literally) on the England backline in the '95 World Cup. I think a few more performances of the like from North will cement his status as one of the most exciting wingers the rugby world has seen, but Welsh fans can't afford to get complacent just yet. Jones had a less than memorable debut for his country last weekend against England and will be hoping to make a better impression for his second cap. The Edinburgh wing has been in fine form in the domestic season and if some of those passes stick the Scottish backs could pose a threat. North's defensive game has improved exponentially since his debut and it will take some impressive running rugby from the Scots to get the better of him.
Jamie Roberts v Sean Lamont
Probably as close as any Welsh-Scottish match-up is going to get in the backs; Lamont is at times head-and-shoulders above most of his compatriots and is likely to be one of the biggest threats Wales will have to deal with in the backline, particularly if he combines with Max Evans. Lamont will be well-known to most of the Welsh backline from his time at the Scarlets which could benefit Wales defensively. Roberts had a typically solid performance versus Ireland but as the tournament progresses is sure to be targeted by defences as the player to stop, and could be marked out of games. His strength, speed and line-breaking attributes are essential to Wales's advancement, but against Lamont it could be his staunch defence that is the most important.
Jonathan Davies v Nick De Luca
With a brace of tries against Ireland and too many line breaks to count Davies was the darling of many a fantasy rugby manager this week. Wales's centre pairing is proving to be one of the most potent and strong Welsh rugby has seen and Davies is knocking loudly on the door for a Lions call-up with an all-round game that is hard to criticise. De Luca had a somewhat torrid time at Murrayfield with several crucial knock-ons and silly handling errors that shouldn't be happening at international level. Not the sole culprit of poor handling of course, but as one of the senior Scottish backs De Luca will need to rectify his mistakes this week to avoid another embarrassing performance. In my opinion Davies and Roberts is as close to perfection as a centre partnership can get.
Alex Cuthbert v Max Evans
Arguably Evans had the more impressive performance in Round 1 of the two wingers facing each other here. Cuthbert started his first international and played only the first half after a head injury. Overall a decent performance, he used his size and strength well and made some telling breaks; defensively he left a little to be desired against Ireland, although unless Scotland co-ordinate themselves better this time around that shouldn't be a problem. Evans looked the most likely to score a long-awaited try for Scotland last weekend, and made some scything runs from his own half. Cuthbert will need to be on his toes in defence to halt any progress Evans might make. Conversely, Cuthbert looks to have an advantage over Evans with his size, which should in theory lead to some progress for Wales.
Leigh Halfpenny v Rory Lamont
Lamont was largely anonymous against England last week; his attempts to attack from the deep full-back position caused little to no trouble for the English defenders. Halfpenny has been thrust into the limelight thanks to his last-gasp kick to seal victory for Wales in the first round of matches, and will likely be centre of attention again. Wales may utilise Halfpenny's speed and footwork against a sometimes dithering Scottish defence, Halfpenny acting as a foil to the otherwise physically huge Welsh backline. If Neil Jenkins and Warren Gatland indeed leave Halfpenny with the kicking duties for Wales Halfpenny could have another vital role to play from the tee.