Welsh title defence takes a knock as Henson is sidelined
Talismanic inside-centre is ruled out of Murrayfield match as Scotland eye early upset
Scotland's Mike Blair was sitting in one of the suites in the West Stand at Murrayfield yesterday, outlining his vision for the Six Nations Championship (the Blair Six Project?) when the news came through that Wales would be without their talismanic No 12 for their tournament opener in Edinburgh tomorrow. So no guaranteed victory, then, for the reigning champions and favourites?
On 10 occasions, Gavin Henson has lined up for Wales in the Six Nations Championship and all 10 times he has finished on the winning side. He will not be doing so at Murrayfield tomorrow, though. The calf muscle that tightened on the Ospreys centre in training on Tuesday was still giving him grief before the Welsh squad packed their bags and prepared to head north yesterday.
The Grand Slammers of last season will have to get on their way in the 2009 championship without their Elvis-double of a good luck charm. In the absence of Henson, Jamie Roberts will move to inside-centre, with Tom Shanklin starting outside his Cardiff Blues colleague and Osprey Andrew Bishop stepping up for bench duty.
"It might mean they tighten things up a wee bit," Blair said. "Shanklin's a slightly more physical player. Good defender. We knew Henson was carrying an injury, so it has been something we've been thinking about." That, and much else besides.
Wales' form over the past 12 months, with and without the delicate Henson, has given Scotland and their captain plenty of food for thought. It is the reason why Frank Hadden, Scotland's head coach, and his fellow selectors have gone for experience in the starting XV, favouring Simon Webster over Thom Evans on the right wing, Ally Hogg over Alasdair Strokosch at blindside flanker and Jason White over Al Kellock in the second row.
"I think experience is a big thing," Blair said, ahead of his 55th cap as Scotland's scrum-half, his ninth appearance as captain. "With the selection we've got, Frank knows what performance he's going to get out of the players. He knows that we're going to play at a certain level, and that's something that we've got to do because it's a hell of a game first up. Wales have played very well, very consistently, over the last 12 months. It means that we've got to do the same on Sunday."
It remains to be seen whether the Scots and their brilliant scrum-half can build on their own promising form from the autumn, notably their 14-10 close-call defeat against the Springboks. The loss of the injured Euan Murray and Nathan Hines from their front five constitutes a double-whammy of blows, while the omission of the red-hot Evans (joint-top try scorer in the Magners League and plunderer of a hat-trick away to Bath in the Heineken Cup) and the detailing of Chris Paterson and his deadly right boot to bench duty has been interpreted in some quarters as much the same thing.
Not that you will catch the Welsh camp shouting the odds on Princes Street tonight. The Red Dragons, having roared to victory just twice at Murrayfield in 24 years (in 1997 and 2005), are treading somewhat warily into their opening encounter.
"I think perhaps the problem for Wales in the past has been going up to Edinburgh with a little bit of over-confidence," said Warren Gatland, the Kiwi who has transformed Wales in his 14 months as head coach. "I remember going to Murrayfield with Ireland with hopes of a Grand Slam and coming away with our tail between our legs. The same thing has happened to England. We've got to keep reminding ourselves of that.
"Scotland have been one of the big improvers in the last 12 months and this first game is so important for us in terms of confidence and momentum. We've got to make sure that – mentally – we're ready for the challenge."
If Gatland's charges manage to rise to the challenge in a winning fashion, it will be one down and four to go for them in the back-to-back Grand Slam stakes. For Scotland and their captain, it would be back to the drawing board and a whole new agenda. The Blair Hitch Project, perhaps.
Scotland v Wales: Murrayfield teams
15 H Southwell (Edinb'gh)
14 S Webster (Edinb'gh)
13 B Cairns (Edinburgh)
12 G Morrison (Glasgow)
11 S Lamont (N'thmpton)
10 P Godman (Edinb'gh)
9 M Blair (Edinb'gh, capt)
1 A Jacobsen (Edinburgh)
2 R Ford (Edinburgh)
3 G Cross (Edinburgh)
4 J White (Sale)
5 J Hamilton (Edinburgh)
6 A Hogg (Edinburgh)
7 J Barclay (Glasgow)
8 S Taylor (Stde Français)
Replacements: 16 D Hall (Glasgow); 17 A Dickinson (Gloucester); 18 K Brown (Glasgow); 19 S Gray (Northampton); 20 C Cusiter (Perpignan); 21 C Paterson (Edinburgh); 22 M Evans (Glasgow).
15 L Byrne (Ospreys)
14 L Halfpenny (Cardiff B)
13 T Shanklin (Cardiff B)
12 J Roberts (Cardiff B)
11 S Williams (Ospreys)
10 S Jones (Scarlets)
9 M Phillips (Ospreys)
1 G Jenkins (Cardiff B)
2 M Rees (Scarlets)
3 A Jones (Ospreys)
4 I Gough (Ospreys)
5 A-W Jones (Ospreys)
6 R Jones (Ospreys, capt)
7 M Williams (Cardiff B)
8 A Powell (Cardiff B)
Replacements: 16 H Bennett (Ospreys); 17 J Yapp (Cardiff Blues); 18 L Charteris (Dragons); 19 D Jones (Scarlets); 20 D Peel (Sale Sharks); 21 J Hook (Ospreys); 22 A Bishop (Ospreys).
Referee A Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant referees C White, R Debney (England)
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