BT Murrayfield is donning its glad rags and piling on the slap in time for the visit of our favourite cousins from the south. Tomorrow will see one new coach, a new captain and a brand new air of expectation about the old stadium so, on a day of firsts, there is one more worthy of a mention.
“I actually don’t think I’ve been to a Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield,” said Scotland centre Mark Bennett, surprising even himself. “I’ve been to a lot of other games. I could be wrong, I could just have forgotten about it, but I don’t think I have been to a Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield, so it’s going to be a good experience.
“It’s England, it’s a big rivalry, you always want to go out and beat them, especially because it is so close to home. It’s just a big game and coming through the age groups they have always had the edge on us. I don’t think I’ve beaten England at age group rugby so I really want to go out and get a win against them this week.”
Ignore, if you can, all the yak ahead of this Calcutta Cup, especially coming from Eddie Jones who called Scotland favourites (they aren’t) and then said he’d apologise to Vern Cotter (he won’t).
The first blow in this Calcutta Cup match was landed by the home side when they announced their starting XV complete with Bennett filling the No 13 shirt. Coincidentally he has played just 13 times for Scotland. Luck doesn’t come into the equation, but Bennett already has six tries to his name so he is a marked man.
There was no question Cotter would start his star centre once it became clear that his shoulder injury, and he is understandably coy about identifying which one he hurt against Racing’92 in the middle of last month, had cleared up and both player and coach were as one on that score.
“He is 100 per cent and we can’t hold him back,” said Cotter at yesterday’s team announcement. “At first it seemed it was going to be a month or two. A second look showed that it wasn’t. He’s followed protocols and he’s back.”
Bennett revealed that he had first done some gentle contact work on Friday last and, when there was no major reaction to that workout, he went at it at the start of this week in an effort to make tomorrow’s big game. You have to hope that he’s given the shoulder a good going over because England are sure to do so, at 4:51pm tomorrow afternoon to be exact, as Bennett readily acknowledges.
“Aye, that is part of the game and I don’t see why they wouldn’t. I am one of the smallest guys in the team. It’s just physics.”
The Scot will face off against England’s Jonathan Joseph tomorrow and the two know each other pretty well. Bennett drew first blood in last season’s European Champions Cup when Glasgow ran five tries past Joseph’s Bath side, two of which went to Bennett while Joseph scored the visitors’ only touchdown. They scored one apiece in England’s Calcutta Cup triumph last season and it’s entirely likely that one or both of these two rising stars will have a significant say in tomorrow’s outcome.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s always been a good game whenever I’ve played against him,” says Bennett of his familiar English rival. “He’s fairly similar to me in the way he likes to play – he likes to use his feet and his pace to try and go on the outside. It’s always a bit of fun playing against him.
“Whenever I’ve played against him [Joseph] he’s given a bit of crack to us during and after the game. It’s a battle that I am looking forward to because it is going to be a challenge.”
He isn’t going to get many arguing with that assertion, especially those who remember the last time these two teams locked horns. Twelve months ago at Twickenham, England should have had the game sewn up in the first quarter in which they broke the Scottish defensive line like a feral toddler ripping the packaging off a Christmas present. Only last-ditch try-saving tackles by Stuart Hogg on Mike Brown and Jack Nowell kept Scotland in contention in that first half.
The same midfield was selected to start that day and the same trio, Finn Russell, Matt Scott and Bennett, were on duty when the Samoans cut loose in the World Cup, scoring three tries in the space of 11 minutes. The truth is that every one of Scotland’s back division is better at attacking than at defending, which at least keeps things interesting.
At least following the World Cup the Scotland team that starts this Six Nations are light years better than the one that finished last season’s championship as road kill under an Irish juggernaut and expectations are noticeably higher.
“I think that they should be,” is Bennett’s succinct response.