ENGLAND cursing their luck in Paris and coming to Murrayfield with a deep desire to kick-start their Six Nations Championship against a Scotland side with battered confidence is just the latest in a long line of Calcutta Cup preambles that leaves the bookmakers forecasting a familiar outcome.
The Scotland coaches have made plain their dissatisfaction with the performance of the forwards, in particular, who not so much fell to a 28-6 loss to Ireland on the opening weekend of the championship but handed out victory on a plate. Kelly Brown will feel hard done by in being the only player to lose his place, when he was far from alone in his culpability, but just as lifting the silverware comes first to the captain, so paying the price for failure sometimes hits the skipper the hardest.
Into the breach steps Greig Laidlaw for what the scrum-half admitted yesterday would be the biggest game of his career. We have talked much this week of why Scotland need an openside flanker, and so there is no real surprise that Scott Johnson has decided to turn to Chris Fusaro, the Glasgow specialist, and finally hand the 24-year-old a shot at proving that he can bring something different to this team and create a better back-row blend. But there is also the issue of leading the side. Brown likes to lead by example. That is his way. He talks quietly to players, reassures them, cajoles them and, when he is angry, most players are aware of it.
But, in the second half in Dublin, as the game began to slide from Scotland, there was also a lack of real leadership on the field and one feels that this may have been as important a factor in Brown being dropped as his personal performance.
So, the pressure falls on Laidlaw this afternoon as well as landing on the wide shoulders of Fusaro, a player who knows what it is to buck trends, having been raised by an Italian father and Scottish mother in Cupar, where rugby has a great history through the Howe of Fife but lacks a place at the Scottish game’s top table.
Fusaro did his bit to change that in 2006-07 when he helped steer Bell Baxter High School and the Howe’s youth team to Scottish Schools Cup and youth titles. That Bell Baxter success remains the sole win by a state school in the nationwide event in the last 16 years. He has similarly had to fight for a place at Glasgow, against bigger specimens, as is normal for openside flankers under 6ft tall, and even had to, metaphorically, batter Johnson over the head in recent games for the Warriors to prove that he was worthy of a place in the team. Laidlaw, similarly, has overcome many career hurdles. He was advised to forget about the game entirely in his late teens by a doctor that feared a bad knee would only worsen with regular club rugby, never mind pro and Test matches. He still fought for several years before winning a place in Edinburgh’s team, but then proved the coaches wrong by going on to become Scotland’s best scrum-half and stand-off, and causing fresh selection dilemmas.
Laidlaw is now coming under fire for his speed of passing and lack of threat, but remains determined to prove the critics wrong there once again, at the end of a week in which the Scottish players were criticised by their own forwards coach Jon Humphreys for playing with a lack of intent in Ireland.
When Laidlaw is not happy with you, the eyebrow raises, and after doing his bit for the media yesterday in a 15-minute conference with the assembled journalists from Scotland and England firing countless questions his way the eyebrow began to stick in a permanently raised position.
He spoke politely, never refused to answer, but eventually the words matched the body language. “It doesn’t get any bigger for me than Scotland versus England at Murrayfield,” he said. “It’s a privilege just to be involved in a match such as this. It’s a game we’re looking forward to because it’s Scotland versus England but also because we want to right a few wrongs from last week. But it’s not about what I say before the game or during the game. Talk is cheap and it’s about what we do as a team on the park.”
He had spoken well, earlier, about what it meant to him to be asked to lead the team in such an historic fixture and there was something refreshing about the way he made no attempt to suggest it was ‘just another game’, but insisted that this was a unique moment.
“Playing for Scotland is a huge honour but to be captaining my country against England in the Calcutta Cup is the ultimate career high for me,” he said. “When you think of the people who’ve led Scotland in the past I know what a huge honour it is. But I don’t just want to be the captain, turn up and play the game – I want to make it a special day. I want to make it a special day for the Scotland supporters.
“These are big shoes I am filling because Kelly is a great captain and a great man, and I’ve absolutely no doubt he will be involved with Scotland again very soon. Scott has made the decision and I’m fully focused on the game, and in a playing sense being captain isn’t that big a change for me because as a scrum-half I’m always heavily involved in the game. Nothing much will change in that sense. I’ll try and be myself, it doesn’t matter if I am captain or not, the No 9 is such a lynchpin in the team.
“But, in terms of what it means, this game means everything to me. It’s the oldest game in the world, it’s the Auld Enemy and I remember the 2000 game when I sat behind the posts with my dad watching Duncan Hodge score all those points and win. That’s what we are 100 per cent focused on.”
England have stuck with the team that came very close to launching their campaign with victory over France, with newcomers Luther Burrell at outside centre and Jack Knowles on the right wing. They played well, mostly, but showed their inexperience at times, too, and Alex Dunbar and Sean Lamont are excited at the prospect of reining in their talents. Just as last week, this game will come down to the respective packs in terms of the old adage that forwards decide who wins the game and backs by how many.
Should the Scottish pack fail to get some parity in the scrum and compete consistently with a good English lineout, and slip off what is being called the ‘shift drive’ maul, when teams drive a lineou but shift the point of attack, as they did in Ireland, they will hand England a surfeit of possession.
With scrum-half Danny Care like an eager chipmunk who never stops running and threatening and Owen Farrell maturing into a rounded stand-off, they will have Scotland’s backs running all ways throughout the evening with little hope of closing gaps. But the Scottish forwards cannot play as loosely as they did again, one feels, and so a strong set-piece and more consistency in the tackle area will make a real game of this. On front-foot ball, Laidlaw is threatening and Duncan Weir is beginning to grasp the fundamentals of game management, ie give your backs flat ball going forward and put kicks into space or high enough that team-mates have a chance of challenging.
Emotion is never enough to win rugby games at this level, not with the modern-day attention to technical detail. But Scotland at home are still a different and tougher prospect to Scotland away. Murrayfield has the ability today to enshroud the Scottish team and leave England clutching at thin air, struggling to find momentum and wondering why their plans are not having the desired effect. That is a key point in this unique psychological battle.
England have matured from the team that played here two years ago and are better, but when Scotland’s backs are to the wall there is a fresh urgency about their defensive play, the line-speed and the ferocity of the tackling, and allied to a good set-piece that will be the foundation on which Scotland will give themselves a chance.
England expects. Stuart Lancaster’s men will feel they have tougher games to come and cannot afford to lose again, so there will be a palpable pressure in the visiting dressing-room before kick-off. Scotland need it to be greater at half-time through taking whatever opportunities come their way to make life difficult for the men in white. If ever there was a game for Scotland to uncover a previously hidden ruthlessness one imagines this would be it, but they need to do it without the qualities of Brown and the injured Sean Maitland.
Scotland defence coach Matt Taylor spoke positively about the prospect of rain swinging into Murrayfield late this afternoon, and harking back to previous wins in poor weather at Murrayfield said he would be delighted if it was torrential. Laidlaw just smiled. “The weather doesn’t bother us,” he added. “Traditionally, we’re at our best when our backs are up against the wall. We are just itching to get out there and get stuck in. We need to right the wrongs of last week and where better to do that than at Murrayfield against England?”
Scotland: 15 S Hogg, 14 T Seymour, 13 A Dunbar, 12 M Scott, 11 S Lamont, 10 D Weir, 9 G Laidlaw (capt), 1 R Grant, 2 R Ford, 3 M Low, 4 T Swinson, 5 J Hamilton, 6 R Wilson, 8 C Fusaro, 7 D Denton. Subs: 16 S Lawson, 17 A Dickinson, 18 G Cross, 19 J Gray, 20 J Beattie, 21 C Cusiter, 22 D Taylor, 23 M Evans.
15 M Brown, 14 J Nowell, 13 L Burrell, 12 B Twelvetrees, 11 J May, 10 O Farrell, 9 D Care, 1 J Marler, 2 D Hartley, 3 D Cole, 4 J Launchbury, 5 C Lawes, 6 T Wood, 8 C Robshaw (capt), 7 B Vunipola. Subs: 16 T Youngs, 17 M Vunipola, 18 H Thomas, 19 D Attwood, 20 B Morgan, 21 L Dickson, 22 B Barritt, 23 A Goode.