England have pronounced themselves masters of the new art form of rugby as a 23-man game and there is good reason to argue they will have a stronger team on the field at the final whistle of today’s clatteringly crucial match with Scotland than at the kick-off.
But that may change if Owen Farrell succumbs to injury instead of striding on to the Twickenham turf in his straight-backed, steely-eyed, cock-of-the-north pomp, and is replaced by Ben Te’o as the starting inside centre and George Ford as first-choice goalkicker. A door already slightly ajar to the unusually confident Scots may swing open wide as the visitors bid to take down the reigning Six Nations champions and shatter a glittering array of potential records in the process.
Scotland’s Saharan-standard drought at Twickenham has left them without a win there since 1983, the most recent effort being a one-point loss to Australia in the 2015 World Cup quarter-finals, since which tournament England have recovered from losing to Wales and the Wallabies in pool play to beating those two countries six times during a national-record sequence of 17 victories, one short of the world’s best held by New Zealand.
If there is any lesson from Calcutta-Cup history, it may be the 1999 meeting when Scotland were beaten by three points at Twickenham, and regretted three missed kicks by Kenny Logan, whereas a young Jonny Wilkinson, playing in the centre, was faultless from the tee for England. Yesterday morning Wilkinson, now a part-time kicking coach, was giving Ford one-to-one tuition at Twickenham while the vice-captain and defensive maestro Farrell, though present, was resting the left leg that took a bang in tackling practice the day before.
Not that England have had far to look for possible distractions as they continue their pursuit of a first repeat Grand Slam since 1991 and 1992, a feat no team has managed in the Six-Nations era.
The noises off have ranged from a random New York Times discussion of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – a “parallel existence” of “19th-century African-American spiritual… and boisterous drinking song turned sports anthem” – to the British & Irish Lions tour looming in June, with head coach Warren Gatland allowed a watching brief at both England and Scotland training.
England’s strength is indicated by Nathan Hughes keeping his place at No 8 as the brilliant Billy Vunipola returns on the bench after a three-month lay-off. A whopping contrast in style with Scotland is reflected in Hughes’ description of the blue-jerseyed back row as “three No 7s playing at once”.
Coupled with the traditional build of the brothers Jonny and Richie Gray in the second row, it is very different to England’s almost homogenous back five likely to include Maro Itoje scrummaging in the heart of the pack again despite wearing No 6 on his back.
In 1999, the home side’s mightiest totem, Martin Johnson, went off injured, and the Scots splintered England’s defence with the clever vision and handling of Gregor Townsend.
In 2017, the Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg is a candidate for player of the Six Nations so far – in attack, at any rate. But, at the risk of repetition, this is a team game. If England are to equal a record and crack on for the Grandest glory, the collective must come through.