By STEVE DOUGLAS
2014-03-14 06:22 AM
It was only eight months ago that Wales' rugby players were being hailed for providing the bulk of the British Lions team that ended a 16-year wait for a series win.
This weekend, they are out to fight accusations that they are a spent force and their game plan is in need of an overhaul.
Such is the reversal in fortunes of Warren Gatland's side that a defeat to Scotland in their Six Nations closer in Cardiff on Saturday could see it slump to a fifth-place finish. The Welsh started the tournament as the two-time defending champion.
"We are the guys on the field, ultimately, and we are the guys who are not quite there at the moment," Wales center Jamie Roberts said. "It has been an up-and-down championship, to say the least."
Roberts has summed up Wales' Six Nations perfectly. The team was patchy in an opening 23-15 victory against Italy, blown away in a 26-3 defeat in Ireland, seemingly back to its best in beating France 27-6 at home and then lackluster in Sunday's 29-18 loss to England at Twickenham.
The Six Nations after a Lions tour is always tough for the home unions, but has been especially testing for the Welsh given they had 16 players chosen to tour Australia last year.
Toward the end of the England match, it seemed there wasn't much left in the tank for many members of the Wales pack, which couldn't match England's intensity in ball-carrying or at the breakdown.
"It was always going to be a big load this season, but there are potentially bigger things to worry about," Wales lock Alun-Wyn Jones said. "You cannot expect teams to be up for a final every Saturday, but you have to in the Six Nations and that is the difficulty we have."
Some are now questioning whether Gatland's risk-averse approach, primarily focused on a strong kicking game and using the team's big ball-carriers in the forwards and the midfield, is the right way to go.
It has looked predictable at times, certainly against a bright and hungry England side.
"It is about us players putting our hands up and admitting we were poor and searching deep within ourselves to raise our game for this Saturday," Roberts said.
Gatland has freshened up his starting XV by making six changes, including a recall for scrumhalf Mike Phillips and flyhalf Dan Biggar. Rhys Priestland drops out as No. 10 after a performance against England that was heavily criticized.
Liam Williams comes in at fullback in place of Leigh Halfpenny, who dislocated his right shoulder against England and will undergo surgery on Friday and is expected to be out for up to four months.
In the forwards, hooker Ken Owens and prop Rhodri Jones come in for Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones and lock Luke Charteris returns from injury to partner Alun-Wyn Jones.
"Saturday is an opportunity for us to put in a performance we know we can, and finish the Six Nations on a high," Gatland said.
An unlikely 20-point win would lift Scotland above Wales -- but a victory of any kind will satisfy the Scots after a narrow defeat to France in a home match they should have won last weekend.
Winger Dougie Fife will win his first cap for Scotland, which made three changes to its starting team. Max Evans comes in for Sean Lamont on the opposite wing, while injured flanker Johnnie Beattie is replaced by Ryan Wilson.
Wales: Liam Williams, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Dan Biggar, Mike Phillips; Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton (captain), Dan Lydiate, Alun-Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris, Rhodri Jones, Ken Owens, Gethin Jenkins. Reserves: Richard Hibbard, Paul James, Adam Jones, Jake Ball, Justin Tipuric, Rhodri Williams, Rhys Priestland, James Hook.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Dougie Fife, Alex Dunbar, Matt Scott, Max Evans, Duncan Weir, Greig Laidlaw; David Denton, Kelly Brown (captain), Ryan Wilson, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray, Geoff Cross, Scott Lawson, Ryan Grant. Reserves: Ross Ford, Alasdair Dickinson, Euan Murray, Tim Swinson, Alasdair Strokosch, Chris Cusiter, Duncan Taylor, Jack Cuthbert.