Even the London Press is talking up Scotland’s chances today. Some may find this a bit worrying. It’s certainly unusual. It’s partly because journalists have been impressed by Scotland’s improved performance and results, and by the style in which we have played; partly because they have been disappointed by England even though they have won all three matches so far. They haven’t been entirely convincing in any of them, which is why the optimism we habitually manage to summon up, often against all reason, for the Twickenham trip, may be more soundly based than usual.
Nevertheless it should be tempered. If this Scotland team was playing this English one at Murrayfield, the odds might even be in their favour. But at Twickenham? That’s a different story. It’s not just Twickenham of course. The fact is that in the Six Nations the home team usually wins unless the visitors are clearly stronger and more skilful. This year, if you discount the two matches in Rome where Italy were well beaten, the only away victory has been England’s in Cardiff. They won that game by the skin of their teeth, thanks to a bad kick out of defence which allowed George Ford and Owen Farrell to make beautiful passes which freed Elliot Daly to score in the left corner. Otherwise Ireland and Wales have lost at Murrayfield, Scotland in Paris, and France at Twickenham and in Dublin. (Ireland may have bucked the trend by winning in Cardiff before you read this.)
Away wins were rare in the Five Nations, too. One might think they should be easier now because, thanks to the European Cups and, for us the Guinness Pro12, players have more experience of cross-border rugby than they did in the amateur days. But the evidence is clear: the home team usually wins unless there is a marked disparity between the two sides.
Well, that’s enough pessimism. We all know how long it is since we won at Twickenham, but we believe with some reason that this is the best Scotland team since we won the last Five Nations in 1999. Admittedly we lost at Twickenham that year, too. But it was a devilish close-run thing: 21-24 , after we had given them a 14-0 start in the first 20 minutes. Many thought we would have won if Kenny Logan hadn’t missed three kicks at goal. Perhaps, perhaps, but in fact he converted the three Scottish tries, and if even one penalty goal is scored, everything is different afterwards.
We are not going to be more powerful than England. So we have to be quicker and smarter; we’re capable of that. The set scrum is a worry, as it has been all season, but the Glasgow front row did pretty well against Wales, and Gordon Reid, Fraser Brown and Zander Fagerson have had their successes in European competition this year. As ever much depends on how the scrum is refereed. Dan Cole on the English tight-head is a fine player, but not every referee thinks he always scrums legally. There’s nothing to choose between the locks. Joe Launchbury has had a terrific tournament, but so have the Gray brothers. We may hope to have an advantage in the backrow, at the breakdown at least, where John Barclay and Hamish Watson had great games against Wales.
There’s little to choose between the two back divisions. I would rather have the Scottish halves than the English ones. Ali Price is inexperienced at international level, but unlikely to be fazed by Twickenham. He must also have a happy memory of the last time he lined up against Ben Youngs; Glasgow 43 Leicester 0, and Youngs departing, disconsolate, before the hour mark. I’ve admired George Ford since I first saw him playing for an England age-grade side when he reminded me of Rob Andrew, whom Bill McLaren rated so highly; nevertheless he doesn’t have Finn Russell’s ability to do the unexpected, any more than Rob Andrew had Gregor Townsend’s. There’s little to choose between the centres, even if Owen Farrell isn’t fit and is replaced by Ben Te’o, whom the Scots know well from his time at Leinster. I would add only that having Alex Dunbar is like having a third flanker. All four wings are proven Test match tryscorers, and England are stronger for having Jack Nowell in their starting XV instead of Johnny May. As for the full-backs, anyone who would rather have Mike Brown than Stuart Hogg needs his head seen to. Brown is a solid player, Hogg the most dangerous and inventive runner in the Six Nations.
So, yes, we can win, and may do so. But – there is always a but, three buts indeed today. First, England are accustomed to winning even when playing below their best. Second, they have a stronger bench, with the Vunipola brothers ready to come on; and they have been snatching victories in the last ten minutes. Third, it’s Twickenham which is about as inviting to a visiting team as a haunted house.