Wales primed to redeem Henry's tarnished reputation

It would be natural to imagine that the vexed subject of eligibility that has raged throughout Wales this week might have served as an unwelcome distraction to the players of the national side as they prepare to take on Scotland and get their Six Nations campaign back on track.

But if David Young is to be believed the furore has blown clear over the heads of the players. All attention has been so focused on Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson, the chief protagonists in this mini-soap opera of family trees, that the rest of the Wales players have been largely out of the public eye. They have been ignored by the various branches of the media who have zoomed in on the two New Zealanders, axed from the squad after failing to provide conclusive proof of their Welsh links.

"You would struggle to know there was an international taking place this weekend," Young, the Wales captain, said. "I hope the rumpus works to our advantage. Normally after a big defeat, such as the one we suffered against England a fortnight ago, all the media attention is concentrated on the players. But the eligibility dispute has deflected attention away from us and we have been able to get on with our preparations. As a result morale in the camp is excellent, everyone is pulling together."

The Scots are, too. Gregor Townsend celebrates his 50th cap playing in the centre, rather than at fly-half, his preferred position. He has had a troubled Six Nations, never quite hitting the top notes. That prompted the coach, Ian McGeechan, to say yesterday: "All of us want Gregor to be at his best, because if he is he will cause Wales all sorts of problems."

But to a man the Scots are also aware, according to McGeechan, of the size of the problem facing them on their first visit to the imposing Millennium Stadium. And the Scots, last season's champions and this year's favourites for the wooden spoon as they await their first victory of the tournament, have not fared particularly well against teams who have lost to England this season.

Setting aside their surprise defeat against Italy, they have run up against France, who had just been disposed of by the English, and followed that by suffering a record backlash against Ireland, who had also just been humiliated by Clive Woodward's team.

Now it is Wales' turn, in a stadium where noise becomes a 16th Welshman on the pitch. Graham Henry, the coach, has made eight changes from the team thrashed at Twickenham and Young reckons that that could be advantageous.

"Everyone who has just come in to the team is determined they are not there just for one match. A lot of them feel they should have been picked a while back."

Among the new boys is Matt Cardey, a New Zealander, whose ancestry has survived Star Chamber treatment this week. This is his debut and he will do well if he can put last week's disruption behind him. He will at least have a familiar figure in front of him at scrum-half, his Llanelli club-mate Rupert Moon. An Englishman, Moon qualified to wear the red jersey after serving the six-year residential qualification which used to be deemed necessary before anyone could call themselves Welsh.

Moon threw a jocular spanner into the eligibility mess yesterday when he said he was so pleased to be back for his 19th cap after an absence of five years that he would "play like the Wild Man of Borneo".

But above all else this match represents a crucial point in the careers of the two coaches as well. Henry, himself a New Zealander, began by helping Wales to string 10 Test victories together before everything began to unravel and he is now having to endure criticism for scouring the southern hemisphere for anyone with a Welsh connection. He was soon burdened with the label of Great Redeemer, as the victories began coming and in his 19 matches since he took charge, there have been a dozen triumphs. But four of the seven defeats have come in the last five outings, including the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

McGeechan enjoyed spectacular success as the Lions coach for an unprecedented three tours, and is widely acknowledged as one of the best in the world. Yet his first matches in charge of Scotland have resulted in defeat.

Both coaches need success to bolster their flagging reputations. Both sides need success to reinforce their inner belief. It is not national identity that as at stake today, but the rugby heritage of two proud nations.