By Peter Jackson
Gregor Townsend last appeared in Cardiff on Six Nations business a long time ago, helping Scotland beat Wales in a duel for fourth and fifth place.
He will be back in the New Year in circumstances very different to those of April 2002 when the most anti-climactic of finishes would have left Wales lumbered with the Wooden Spoon had Italy not beaten them to it by losing all five matches.
Now, as a further reminder that not everything stays the same, Scotland will start the Championship with the aim of winning it when for too often their ambition started and finished with winning the perennial spoon decider against the other team in blue.
While Vern Cotter raised expectations to the rarified atmosphere of the top three, his successor has raised them higher still. Scotland’s justifiable claim to be the Six Nations team of the Autumn series entitles them to be taken seriously as contenders.
If all goes to plan for Townsend at the Millennium Stadium on February 3, he will uncork the tartan fizz on a Wales squad in the throes of some severe teething problems over their belated switch from ‘Warrenball’ to something a touch more sophisticated.
The irony for home fans is that Scotland are playing the exhilarating brand of rugby to which Wales aspire. Their game has a pace and precision based not on the wave of any old wand but on the years Townsend spent at Scotstoun making those attributes second nature for his Glasgow players.
Having made the Warriors the most consistently watchable of all British clubs over the last few seasons, he has taken the best of an Edinburgh pack stiffened by a few imports from what used to be the Empire and lifted them to a higher plane.
Their ability to hack it there, as demonstrated on successive Saturdays against the All Blacks and the Wallabies, promises to make the Six Nations more than an Anglo-Irish duel between the world’s second ranked team, England, and the third, Ireland.
From a distance, it is tempting to identify their collision at Twickenham on the last Saturday, March 17, as the decider. Who’s to say that Scotland won’t have scuppered that scenario a few weeks earlier by seeing England off in Edinburgh?
And where does that leave Wales? At best fourth in the pecking order which is not saying much considering that France appear to be in too dishevelled a state to bank on retaining the Garibaldi Cup against Italy.
By Six Nations time, some of the Welsh wounded will be up and running again, eager to answer questions over their form. In that respect George North tops the list, his reputation having suffered through a failure to make the Lions Test team in New Zealand last summer.
Two of the most influential players, Jonathan Davies and Sam Warburton, will still be missing, in Davies’ case not merely for the opening Scotland fixture but the entire tournament. There is also every chance that Warburton will play safe and delay his Test come-back after neck surgery.
The bigger issue is over the Welsh management’s failure to set the ‘evolutionary’ process in motion sooner, evolution being their buzz word in vogue this time 12 months ago during Rob Howley’s season as acting head coach. For all the talk, it didn’t happen.
It meant Wales were going to pay a higher price for Warren Gatland’s sabbatical with the Lions. Since returning to the day job he has wasted no time promoting a raft of new players although nothing could retrieve the time wasted last season, especially over the delay in capping Steff Evans and Owen Williams.
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