THE YEAR 2014 is as big as Scotland has seen for many a moon as it comes under the global microscope by hosting the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup – and to top it all off, stages a referendum on a vote for Scottish Independence.
I have to state that I have a strong affection for England, having spent over 70 per cent of my club rugby career south of the border, developing some amazing memories. Many of my great mates are English.
But the Scotland v England fixture is one day on which friendships have to freeze for a couple of hours (or longer depending on the result). This is special to everyone in Scotland and my family share some great memories. My most memorable rugby match as a boy was the 1990 game that clinched a Grand Slam; as a player my first Six Nations cap was against England in another win, in 2008 – and I will probably never grow out of listening to the recording of Papa [Bill McLaren] commentating on dad [Alan Lawson] scoring two tries against England in 1976!
And, of course, there is history. This year is the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, where Edward II and his powerful English army marched north with a view to destroying the Scottish army in the field and thus end the war of independence. The Scots were led by Robert The Bruce and his army made up of knights, nobles, freemen and tenants, town dwellers and traders – paltry in comparison, but they fought for their territory, defeating the mighty force and sending Edward II and those who survived homeward, ‘tae think again’.
This afternoon we will witness a very different battle, but there are few as fierce in the sporting world. With the 2014 RBS Six Nations tournament only one week old, and both teams coming off opening defeats, the result takes on extra significance.
Two years ago, England coach Stuart Lancaster led his merry men to Edinburgh, having taken on the role of interim head coach after a treacherous 2011 World Cup under Martin Johnson. Their leader was one-cap man Chris Robshaw and efficient defensive tactics, effective territorial kicking and a Charlie Hodgson charge-down try were enough for them to leave Scotland brandishing the Calcutta Cup.
Though that squad was considered ‘one for the future’, with an eye on the 2015 World Cup, only four of today’s starting XV experienced that win. England are a different beast now. They are unchanged from ‘Le Crunch’ – other than Jonny May, whose nose has had its shape changed – and now have a simple yet effective attacking strategy. It is built around physicality, tempo and collision. Billy Vunipola, Dylan Hartley and Luther Burrell will bring ballast and power and ask big questions of the Scottish defence, however, their biggest threat is the most diminutive of all – Danny Care.
He will have taken confidence from his 62-minute display at Stade de France where he sparked England into life after an awful opening quarter with quick taps and snipes around the fringes of rucks as well as clipping over an audacious drop goal. Nobody has questioned his ability to break a game, but his basics have let him down in the past. It is clear he has focused on improving his accuracy of kicking and sharpness of pass which now has him nailed on in the No 9 shirt.
Lancaster has been criticised for replacing Care with Lee Dickson for the last quarter while Philippe Saint-Andre has been hailed a master after unleashing matchwinner Gael Fickou in the dying moments and, unfortunately, that may mean Lancaster is less likely to take Care off today. It has been interesting to read the contrasting words from the camps in the build-up. Robshaw suggested “our game is not judged on performance, but on results” while Scott Johnson desires “performance” with good results a by-product.
International rugby is about small margins and winning the mini battles as both sides found out at the weekend. Against the Irish, Scotland came out on the wrong side of too many, made a handful of unforced errors and were not clinical when it mattered. Messrs Johnson, Humpreys, Taylor and Hodge have made their feelings known this week, but I believe they truly back the abilities of the squad. The beauty of a six-day turnaround is the chance to redeem yourselves quickly. With the need to refresh the squad, Johnson has made some inevitable changes, adding to the shock omission of Kelly Brown. I feel for Kelly, with him having been named captain for the opener, but Johnson always said that Kelly would be captain if he started and has been clear that he has a particular job that he needs done this weekend. I had a similar situation under Andy Robinson where if I played I was captain, but it did not mean you were guaranteed your place.
The “ground-feeding” scavenger role goes to Chris Fusaro. He deserves his shot and will empty the tank, with huge responsibility particularly in defence, winning collisions in the tackle and the race to the ruck, while limiting England’s quick ball and generating turnovers. Easier said than done. Sean Maitland’s injury is a blow but Tommy Seymour is a smooth operator and Johnson’s comment on his aerial skills suggests to me a plan to rain high balls down on Jonny May and Jack Nowell, with Seymour and Sean Lamont in hot pursuit.
Matt Scott’s inclusion is reward for a fantastic international year in 2013 and he adds something different to Scotland’s attack. Duncan Taylor impressed me last weekend with his physicality, but it’s another case of horses for courses. Scott is dangerous with ball in hand, is quick and elusive, and perhaps most importantly, has top notch distribution skills. It is his ability to see space and pass accurately that can put English defenders in the outside channels in two minds and could be the key to reducing the English line speed.
This is when you want to be involved. This is what you play rugby for, days like these. I have been fortunate to be part of a Scotland team that won the Calcutta Cup and there is no other feeling like it. But for all the emotion, the fireworks and atmosphere at Murrayfield today, Scotland will only win if they are much tighter and more accurate than they were in Ireland, and they take their chances.