History beckons for North and Wales against Scotland
George North and his Wales team-mates will all have the chance to earn a place in the record books as they look to extend their winning run against Scotland on Saturday and so revive their Six Nations title hopes.
The giant Northampton wing missed Wales's agonising 21-16 defeat by England in Cardiff two weeks ago but has recovered from a dead leg and will line up at Murrayfield seeking to become the first player to score tries in six successive appearances since the competition began way back in 1883.
North, whose return in place of stand-in Alex Cuthbert is the only change to the starting side, launched his hot streak with a dazzling solo score in a 27-23 victory against Scotland in February last year and Rob Howley, Wales's interim head coach, warned: "We want George with ball in hand as often as possible.
"I suppose his try against Scotland 12 months ago sums up how he can change games and I’m certain he’ll be looking to have a huge influence against Scotland," added Howley.
North, who has amassed 66 caps at the age of just 24, has scored three tries against Scotland but has yet to cross the opposition try-line for his country at Edinburgh's Murrayfield ground.
Like all but one of his colleagues in Wales's match-day 23, he has also yet to taste defeat against Scotland. Wales captain and second row mainstay Alun Wyn Jones is the only survivor of the country’s last loss to the Scots, home or away.
That came when Wales suffered a 21-9 defeat at Murrayfield on February 10, 2007, with Chris Paterson's seven penalties accounting for all the Scots' points (replacement hooker Ross Ford is the only survivor from Scotland's 23 that day).
Wales have won a record nine in a row against Scotland since then, a feat beyond even their greats of the 1970s, who were beaten at Murrayfield in 1973 and 1975.
Nevertheless, the last two meetings have been tight affairs (27-23 to Wales in Cardiff last year and 26-23 at Murrayfield in 2015) and Scotland’s improved form this season points towards another close encounter.
Vern Cotter’s side opened their 2017 Six Nations account with a stunning 27-22 home win against Ireland and they were competitive against a physical France side before losing 22-16 in Paris two weeks ago.
- Laidlaw loss -
However, it remains to be seen how damaged Scotland will be by the absence of Greig Laidlaw, their scrum-half, captain and goal-kicker.
Laidlaw was hugely influential in steering –- and kicking –- Scotland to their opening day win against Ireland but the Gloucester player tore ankle ligaments midway through the first half in Paris and will miss the rest of the Championship.
Glasgow’s Ali Price has come in at scrum-half, with flanker John Barclay, who plays his club rugby in Wales for the Scarlets, taking over as captain.
Scotland have two other notable absentees because of injury –- No 8 Josh Strauss and wing Sean Maitland -- but, like Wales, they boast a back three player blessed with X-factor flair.
Stuart Hogg has plundered three tries in the opening two rounds, to become Scotland’s record Six Nations try scorer, with 10 in total.
The Glasgow full-back has scored in Scotland’s last four matches in the Championship and only two Scottish players have ever scored in five in a row: Alec Purves (1906-08) and Johnnie Wallace (1925-26).
Scotland's big worry is likely to come at scrum time, having struggled badly in that key department against both Ireland and France.
"Teams will be targeting our set-pieces,” acknowledged Gordon Reid, who comes in for Allan Dell at loosehead prop. “We need to front up.”
If they manage to do that, the Scots could yet have a say in the Championship title race.
"It’s a huge game,” said lock Richie Gray. "The teams are evenly balanced and a lot could swing this weekend.
"If we were to win, we would pick up a huge amount of momentum and confidence."
© 2017 AFP