The Autumn Internationals get underway this weekend as Scotland travel down to Cardiff to take on Wales as World Cup year kicks off with some familiar opponents.
Played outside of the official test windows set by World Rugby, the game will be played only by Scottish-based Scotland players and Welsh-based Wales players, meaning the likes of Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw, Liam Williams and Dan Biggar miss out.
However, there is a good cause to gain from the game aside from the Welsh Rugby Union’s pockets being lined, as a significant contribution will be made by both participating Unions to Doddie Weir’s campaign to raise money for Motor Neurone Disease.
It will be the first game between the two nations played outside of the Six Nations since a World Cup warm-up game in 2003 when Wales won 23-9 at the Principality Stadium thanks to a Michael Owen try and the boot of Iestyn Harris.
In the meantime Scotland have only won twice in fixtures against Wales, at Murrayfield in 2007 and 2017, and in fact you have to go back to 2002 for the last time the Scots won in Cardiff.
This year’s game at the Principality was very one-sided, as tries from Gareth Davies and Steff Evans, and a brace from Leigh Halfpenny, secured a comfortable 34-7 bonus point win for Wales to kick off the Six Nations.
Despite being billed as a ‘friendly’ in some quarters, Scotland will no doubt be keen to avenge that defeat ahead of the Six Nations, and indeed to kick off their World Cup campaign, as Gregor Townsend names a strong side from his Glasgow and Edinburgh contingent.
An all-Edinburgh front row sees Allan Dell, Stuart McInally and WP Nel pack down, with Ben Toolis joining Glasgow’s Jonny Gray at lock. Exciting openside Hamish Watson joins Ryan Wilson and the relatively new international cap Jamie Ritchie in a forward pack coached by former Cardiff Blues boss Danny Wilson.
Conversely, an all-Glasgow three-quarter line sees Ali Price and Pro14 breakout star Adam Hastings play inside Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones, with highly rated Edinburgh full-back Blair Kinghorn joining Lee Jones and Tommy Seymour in the back three.
There is a touch more inexperience on the bench, where front row prospect Alex Allan, Glasgow number eight Mat Fagerson and the uncapped Darcy Graham are all included.
Scotland: Blair Kinghorn, Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Alex Dunbar, Lee Jones, Adam Hastings, Ali Price; Allan Dell, Stuart McInally (c), Willem Nel, Ben Toolis, Jonny Gray, Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Alex Allan, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Matt Fagerson, George Horne, Peter Horne, Darcy Graham
Warren Gatland meanwhile, who has returned to camp this week after the death of his father, has used the fixture to experiment with his squad in some areas, particularly amongst the replacement.
Nicky Smith gets the nod at loosehead with Dillon Lewis packing down on the other side of the front row, while Dan Lydiate is set to play for Wales since last Autumn’s Internationals. Alun Wyn Jones and Cory Hill continue their partnership at second row.
In the backs Gareth Anscombe starts at fly-half after an impressive start to the season at the Arms Park, while Jonathan Davies is back at 13 after a lengthy injury lay-off that saw him miss the last Six Nations.
Luke Morgan will win his first cap playing on the left wing, joining George North and Leigh Halfpenny in the back three after many years spent on the HSBC World Sevens Series circuit.
On the bench Rob Evans is the oldest replacement at 26, with Leon Brown, Elliott Dee, Adam Beard, Aaron Wainwright, Tomos Williams and Steff Evans giving it a really youthful feel. Jarrod Evans is set to make a long awaited debut if he is introduced at some point.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Luke Morgan, Gareth Anscombe, Gareth Davies; Nicky Smith, Ken Owens, Dillon Lewis, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rob Evans, Leon Brown, Adam Beard, Aaron Wainwright, Tomos Williams, Jarrod Evans, Steff Evans
How much each side stand to gain from the encounter in purely rugby terms remains to be seen, but in an individual sense, there are players in the Wales squad who have chances to stake their claim to play in this November’s big tests against Australia and South Africa first and foremost, as well as having an eye on the plane to Japan long-term.
A worry over a lack of fetchers in the back row may be a problem for Wales, who could do with stopping Scotland trying to play their fast and expansive attacking game based around Price and Hastings at half-back, but Warren Gatland’s men will fancy their chances in the physical game.
If a pack of hard carrying forwards can give Anscombe the platform he requires to perform then the sky is the limit for the home side, especially with Parkes outside the fly-half, but if we drop to the back foot the game could get on top of us quickly.
As ever though, no injuries to Cardiff Blues players please!