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Scotland and Wales serve up a thriller

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Scotland 24 – Wales 25

NEVER-DAY-DIE Wales fought back from 17-3 down against a quality Scotland team to gain their second win of this year’s Six Nations.

In the first round game, Wales got dragged into a knock-down-drag-out scrap against Ireland which left them with a long injury list and the need to draw extra players into the squad. With so many key players out injured, the side travelled to Murrayfield bearing the weight of fans hopes rather than expectations.

And what a game those fans got!

A Scottish side full of flair and confidence and a Welsh side with pace at the back and renewed physical presence up front served up a heart-stopping thriller in arctic conditions in Edinburgh.

Scotland were on a high after beating England at Twickenham for the first time in 38 years in the last round. Their pack took England to the cleaners in the Calcutta Cup match and the Scots skilful backline looked sharp with ball in hand.

However, a lack of ruthlessness in their opponent’s twenty-two made the English game closer than it should’ve been and the home side were similarly wasteful with their territorial and possession advantages against Wales.

Too many times the Scots got into Wales’ danger zone only to overplay or misplay the advantage.

With markedly less ball and even less territory, Wales were much more ruthless than the hosts at converting presence in the opposition’s twenty-two into points.

Seeking to win their fifth Six Nations game in a row, Darcy Graham scored Scotland’s first try. Gathering a clever chip over the top by scrum-half Ali Price, Graham shook of Leigh Halfpenny’s desperate tackle and scored under the posts.

Scotland’s second try owed something to luck – both good and bad – Stuart Hogg kicked ahead and gave chase. For all the world. Halfpenny looked to have the ball covered only for it to wriggle free on the greasy surface and he went to ground. Hogg, who is the form fullback in the northern hemisphere, gathered the ball and touched down.

At 17-3 down, Wales were under the cosh but still competitive.

A driving maul from a short lineout saw Wales plough their way up-field in a series of short drives to near the Scottish line. The ball worked across the backline before Nick Tompkins fine pass found Louis Rees-Zammitt lurking with try-scoring intent. From close range, the winger made no mistake and scored the try which sent Wales in at the half 17-8 down.

Wales coach Wayne Pivac changed his half-backs on 51 minutes and was rewarded with an immediate return. Another brilliant driving line-out carved deep into the Scottish 22. Swift ball across the three-quarters released Liam Williams, whose sparkling try was converted by Callum Sheedy to bring Wales within two points.

Shortly afterwards came the moment which left Scots feeling aggrieved. As Wyn Jones challenged for the ball at the breakdown, opposite number Zander Fagerson ploughed into the ruck. Leading with his should he made direct contact with the Welsh prop’s head.

The rules on head contact are clear. Fagerson’s illegal attempt at a clear-out was given a straight red.

As former England prop David Flatman explained after the game: “Zander Fagerson’s red card was a red card. Rugby is changing and, as much as it all seems to be about the elite end of the game, the reality is the exact opposite.
“While the elite game is the most visible, it is rightly being used as a vehicle to make safer all those games of rugby that are played on muddy, isolated fields, away from specialist medical care and high definition cameras.

“Red cards like Fagerson’s are literally designed to make children safer on Sunday mornings.”

To add insult to injury, Wales’ capitalised on their one-man advantage with Wyn Jones touching down after more good close driving work by the Welsh forwards near the Scottish line.

Back came Scotland. Spurning two easy shots at goal, they created space for the ever-dangerous Stuart Hogg to turn on the pace and score a try, which Russell’s touchline conversion made into a four-point lead.

A moment of individual skill by Louis Rees-Zammitt was the standout moment of Wales’ performance. Travelling at full pelt, the Gloucester flyer latched on to Willy Halaholo’s perfectly weighted pass. Without breaking stride, the winger chipped it over the Scottish defence, outpaced Stuart Hogg (no mean feat) and gathered his own kick in Murrayfield’s deep in goal area to touch down.

Still Scotland came again and deep into stoppage time worked the ball to Scotland’s giant winger, Duhan van der Merwe. For all the world, it looked as though the last play of the match would see Welsh hearts broken at Murrayfield. Scrambling back, Owen Watkin produced the perfect tap tackle. With the clock in the red zone, Wales made no mistake in kicking the ball dead to seal the win.

Wales’ bold replacement of both half backs made near the start of the second half, galvanised the Welsh midfield at the expense of kicking reliability. If Wales bring Josh Adams back into the side against England and move Liam Williams to full-back, it is almost certain that Dan Biggar will start at outside half. Callum Sheedy, for all his skill with ball-in-hand, remains too fallible from the tee to be Wales’ frontline kicker.

Apart from an early misfire, Wales’ lineout was vastly improved. After an initial long throw went straight to Scottish hands, hooker Ken Owens and his callers kept it simple. Wales’ forward drives from the lineouts were a significant game-changer for the Welsh pack. The tactic gave Wales’ backs room by sucking in the Scottish defence.

It’s England for the Triple Crown next for Wales and, while England have been unconvincing so far, a Welsh win would still be an upset result. England have power and pace. If they can add precision to the mix, they will take some stopping.

Head coach Wayne Pivac commented: “It’s a very pleasing start, but I think it was evident to everyone that it wasn’t the complete performance.

“At 17-3 down, it wasn’t going to script but the players regathered their thoughts, the leadership on the field was good, and we came away with that score before half time.

“That was vital for us going into the changing room. The players reacted very well after half time, the replacements made an impact, and it was very nice to get the result at the end.”

On Louis Rees-Zammit, Wayne Pivac said: “He was exciting with the ball, wasn’t he? He took his opportunities very well. He’s still got work to do on his game without the ball, and that’s the exciting thing.

“He’s going to be a very exciting player for us going forward.”
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones added: “We’re well aware there are massive improvements to make.

“You can’t give a team two tries, but I’m pleased with the resilience, character and pride in the jersey we’re still showing. What you’re seeing as well is a product of the experimentation from the Autumn Nations Cup and the hurt we took.

“Irrelevant of the advantage, I’d like to think we were in the ascendancy before the card.

“We’re aware England had a good win and are back on track. We’ll be back in Cardiff, so we’ll regroup and improve on the parts we need to.”

Alun Wyn Jones added: “Louis has been playing well for Gloucester in the Premiership. I’d heard a lot about him and seen a lot of highlights of him. Hopefully, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

“I don’t want to heap the pressure on him, I want him to continue in a similar vein.”

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Six Nations: North set for 100th cap against England

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GEORGE North is set to become the youngest player in the world to reach the 100-cap milestone for his country on Saturday, February 27, when Wales take on England at Principality Stadium (KO 16.45 BBC & S4C).

North, 28, made his international bow in November 2010 and has amassed 42 tries in his 99 appearances.

North will line-up in the centre alongside Jonathan Davies on Saturday, outside of half-back pairing of Kieran Hardy and Dan Biggar. Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Liam Williams comprise the back-three.

Wales name an unchanged front-five with Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Tomas Francis packing down in the front-row and Adam Beard partnering captain Alun Wyn Jones in the second-row.

Josh Navidi returns to the side to line-up alongside Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.

“We’ve had a great two weeks leading into this game and we are looking forward to Saturday,” said Wales head coach Wayne Pivac.

“We continue to build and we know there is plenty left in us in terms of improvements from the opening two rounds. We are 2/2 but we want to continue to improve performance wise.

“Saturday is a great milestone for George, it is a huge achievement at his age and we are looking forward to seeing him in action.”

Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones and Leon Brown provide the front-row cover for Wales with Cory Hill and James Botham completing the forward contingent. Gareth Davies, Callum Sheedy and Uilisi Halaholo provide the back-line cover.

WALES TEAM TO PLAY ENGLAND (SATURDAY FEBRUARY 24, KO 16.45)

1. Wyn Jones (32 Caps)

2. Ken Owens (79 Caps)

3. Tomas Francis (54 Caps)

4. Adam Beard (23 Caps)

5. Alun Wyn Jones (CAPT) (145 Caps)

6. Josh Navidi (25 Caps)

7. Justin Tipuric (82 Caps)

8. Taulupe Faletau (83 Caps)

9. Kieran Hardy (3 Caps)

10. Dan Biggar (89 Caps)

11. Josh Adams (29 Caps)

12. Jonathan Davies (85 Caps)

13. George North (99 Caps)

14. Louis Rees-Zammit (6 Caps)

15. Liam Williams (68 Caps)

Replacements:

16. Elliot Dee (34 Caps)

17. Rhodri Jones (19 Caps)

18. Leon Brown (14 Caps)

19. Cory Hill (29 Caps)

20. James Botham (4 Caps)

21. Gareth Davies (59 Caps)

22. Callum Sheedy (6 Caps)

23. Uilisi Halaholo (1 Cap)

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Wales looking for third win in a row against England

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WALES have won their first two games in the Six Nations Championship and on Saturday, February 27, they put that record on the line against great rivals England.

Having already beaten Ireland and Scotland, the Triple Crown will be on the line for Wales, a feat they last achieved in 2019 when they won the Grand Slam.

That will be incentive enough for Wayne Pivac’s men but to do it against England will make it that little bit sweeter.

With France’s game against Scotland on Sunday in doubt, it will also give the home side a great chance to extend their lead at the top of the table.

Wales do not have any fresh injury concerns going into the England game and it will likely provide a selection headache for Pivac.

George North could be set to make his 100th appearance for Wales if he plays against England, and is currently second in the list of all-time try scorers for his home country.

England lost their opening game of the tournament against Scotland but got back to winning ways with a resounding 41-18 win over Italy.

The 2020 Six Nations and Autumn Cup Champions will be eager to rediscover their winning form which brought them that success but they will not find it easy against Wales.

What happened the last time England visited the Principality Stadium?
Wales last welcomed England to the Principality on February 23, 2019, and it was a game which saw Wales earn a 21-13 victory.

Cory Hill and Josh Adams scored Wales’ tries in that match while Dan Biggar and Gareth Anscombe added the rest of the points from the boot.

Tom Curry scored England’s only try in that match while Farrell had a 100% success rate with his kicks.

What happened when the sides met in 2020?

It was an absolute classic last year with England triumphing by 33 points to 30 at Twickenham.

Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Manu Tuilagi got the tries for England on that day while Owen Farrell had again had a 100% record with the boot.

Justin Tipuric bagged two tries for Wales while Dan Biggar scored their other as the men in red came up short on this occasion.

Of course, the last two meetings between the two sides were played in front of capacity crowds but that will not be a factor this time around, owing to the current coronavirus pandemic.

Could that be a factor in the game or will both sides treat us to an excellent display of rugby?

After the England game, Wales travel to Italy on Saturday, March 13, while England will host France on the same day.

A win for either side this weekend will be crucial; a win for Wales and it sets them up for the Grand Slam while a win for England will reignite their hopes of retaining the Six Nations Championship.

Saturday’s game kicks off at 16:45 and can be seen on S4C as well as the BBC.

ENGLAND
Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell, Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Jonny Hill, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Charlie Ewels, George Martin, Ben Earl, Dan Robson, Max Malins.

WALES
Liam Williams; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Jonathan Davies, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Kieran Hardy; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.

Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, James Botham, Gareth Davies, Callum Sheedy, Uilisi Halaholo.

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New format agreed for Champions Cup and Challenge Cup

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THE four Welsh rugby regions have learned their fate after the finals rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup were suspended.

Group stage matches were postponed in January after the French Rugby Union raised concerns about travelling across Europe amidst a rise in coronavirus cases.

The remaining fixtures have not been rearranged and European Rugby has announced a new format.

Both tournaments will resume with Rounds of 16 matches on the weekend of 2/3/4 April and the knockout stages will continue with quarter-finals, semi-finals and the scheduled Marseille finals on EPCR’s allocated weekends in April and May.

As approved by the EPCR Board, the Rounds of 16 and quarter-final matches in both tournaments will now be decided by draws which will take place on Tuesday, March 9.

For the Challenge Cup, the eight highest-ranked clubs from the preliminary stage at the time of the suspension of the tournament and the eight clubs which have not qualified for the knockout stage of Heineken Champions Cup will compete in the Round of 16.

Scarlet will take their place in the last 16 of the Champions Cup alongside the likes of Racing 92, Munster, Lyon and La Rochelle.

Dragons, Ospreys and Cardiff Blues will all compete in the Challenge Cup and could come up against the likes of Leicester Tigers, Newcastle Falcons and Northampton Saints.

For the purposes of the draw, clubs from the same league cannot be drawn against one another, however, Challenge Cup clubs and Heineken Champions Cup clubs can be drawn against one another.

It has also been agreed that open draws will take place to determine the quarter-finals in both the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, allowing for the possibility of matches between clubs in the same league. The draws for the quarter-finals will take place immediately after the rounds of 16 draws on Tuesday, March 9.

Heineken Champions Cup knockout stage qualifiers: Racing 92, Leinster, Wasps, Bordeaux-Begles, Munster, Lyon, Toulouse, La Rochelle, Scarlets, Clermont Auvergne, Bristol Bears, Exeter Chiefs, Edinburgh, Gloucester, RC Toulon, Sale Sharks.

Challenge Cup last 16: London Irish, Ospreys, Leicester Tigers, Cardiff Blues, Zebre Rugby Club, Agen, Benetton Rugby, Newcastle Falcons, Ulster Rugby, Connacht Rugby, Northampton Saints, Bath Rugby, Montpellier, Dragons, Harlequins, Glasgow Warriors

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