The Calcutta Cup mind games were declared officially open yesterday as new England coach Eddie Jones bestowed the favourites tag on Scotland and questioned whether they could handle that pressure.
A week and a half before the tournament gets under way the 2016 RBS Six Nations was launched at the Hurlingham Club in London and the Australian, who replaced Stuart Lancaster after the hosts’ disastrous World Cup campaign, wasted no time in stirring the pot ahead of next Saturday’s renewal of international rugby’s oldest rivalry at BT Murrayfield.
“England didn’t get out of their World Cup pool and Scotland did and nearly made it to the semi-final,” said Jones, the former Japan coach. “The difference in performance at the World Cup was enormous. Both teams are going to have two weeks to prepare so the advantage Scotland have at the moment is massive and they’ve got to carry that pressure of favouritism, which is probably something they are not used to.”
The bookmakers, who all have England odds-on favourites to win the game, would disagree with that assessment and Scotland head coach Vern Cotter was certainly taking it with a pinch of salt too.
“I am not quite sure how Eddie works. It’s just a psychological lever isn’t it that he is trying to use to take the pressure off himself,” responded Cotter.
“From what I gather England are still classed ahead of us in world rugby [rankings] and they have a large numbers of players and you can see that from the Champions Cup [where five English teams have reached the last eight].
“I wouldn’t think England would need that [Jones’ mind games]. I thought they would be comfortable with the favourites’ tag but those are things that are used to try and take people away from the game. We are fully focused on our game and the players are looking forward to it. All the peripheral stuff will be swept aside.”
Jones and Cotter faced each other at the World Cup when Scotland dished out Japan’s only defeat of the tournament a few days after their astonishing victory over the Springboks. The Australian had been riled by his Kiwi counterpart’s suggestion that the Brave Blossoms may sacrifice their opening South Africa match to target the Scots.
Asked if Jones’s comments got under his skin at all, Cotter replied: “It is part of the game. There is a lot of experience and maturity within this group now and it will be what it will be. It is no concern of mine. We know the quality of players they have, we know Eddie’s World Cup speaks for itself so it is clear for us to see. It is also clear for England to see as well. We are just going to try and be ourselves and be as best as we can.”
Scotland skipper Greig Laidlaw also downplayed the issue. “For me it’s irrelevant,” said the Gloucester scrum-half. “We’re not going to get dragged in. We are going to focus on our own performance and worry about the way we train. Those are the only things we can affect. Eddie can say what he wants. Ultimately it’s just words floating about in the air once they’re out there and we’re not going to take them on board. As Vern says we’ve got to concentrate on ourselves and expect the unexpected.”
Of more concern to Cotter is the continuing injury cloud hanging over his centres. He revealed yesterday that Alex Dunbar and Peter Horne are rated “unlikely” to be fit for the England match, while Mark Bennett “may” be in the frame to return but has only been able to do non-contact training this week.