Allan Massie: Who will win pack battle between Edinburgh and England?

Can the Edinburgh pack beat the England one, or at least achieve equality against it? These are the first questions about this afternoon’s Calcutta Cup – surprising ones certainly. Admittedly it’s the Edinburgh pack without Bill Mata, but Exeter’s Sam Skinner is no mean substitute for the brilliant Fijian. Still, it’s an interesting challenge for Richard Cockerill’s men, lent this weekend to Gregor Townsend. Not even in the great days of Hawick’s “Green Machine” did one club supply seven-eighths of a Scotland scrum.

Scotland forwards 
Grant Gilchrist, left, and Ben Toolis in action against Italy. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU
Scotland forwards Grant Gilchrist, left, and Ben Toolis in action against Italy. Picture: Gary Hutchison/SNS/SRU

Almost as remarkable is Glasgow’s poor representation today: only three of the starting XV and two on the bench. Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour are, of course, absent injured and the Fagerson brothers haven’t evidently had enough rugby since they were passed fit to play again to have forced themselves into contention. Jonny Gray hasn’t been quite at his best, which is why he is on the bench and Ben Toolis starting. That said, this is as conservative a selection as any Townsend has made.

England are, of course, hot favourites. They have a very good team and, though they are missing Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje in the pack, nobody would suggest that Eddie Jones’s injury problems compare to Townsend’s. In any case, England win the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham even when they are pretty poor. For most English supporters, the question this afternoon is not “will we win?” but “by how much?” To be honest, one can’t really blame them or say that the question reveals arrogance. Quite simply, location, history and form in this year’s Six Nations all point to a heavy defeat for Scotland.

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It felt different a couple of months ago. Then one could indulge the fancy that this final match of the tournament might decide this season’s champions. After all, we had three home matches, all winnable, while France seemed in such confusion that we might quite reasonably hope to win in Paris. Of course we knew that some players – John Barclay and Duncan Taylor – would play no part in the Six Nations, but we were confident there was greater strength in depth than usual.

Well, of course, it has all come unstuck, arguably from the moment when Hogg was fouled by Peter O’Mahony and the resultant shoulder injury has kept him out of the last three matches. Still, we haven’t helped ourselves by conceding soft tries, two against Ireland and one against Wales, while the performance in Paris was as poor as in any Six Nations game since – ahem – our last visit to Twickenham.

That 2017 match began with a yellow card for Fraser Brown in the first or second minute. England scored some quick tries. Scots, Hogg among them, departed injured in a melancholy procession and, though we actually scored three good tries, the margin of defeat was 40 points. It was the lowest point of Vern Cotter’s time as Scotland coach. Surely, one may sigh, we can do better today. Well, why not? We are, perforce, fielding an inexperienced three-quarter line, with only about ten international starts between them and, in contrast, the England three-quarter line – Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny May – is both experienced and accustomed to scoring tries. There is power and skill in the centre, and pace on the wings. Nobody can deny that England have the advantage in this area.

Elsewhere, however, the balance looks more equal. Elliot Daly or Sean Maitland at full-back? Toss a coin. In dry conditions, on a good day, I would say Scotland have the better halves. Owen Farrell is undoubtedly a very fine player and a tremendous competitor, but he is quite predictable and, indeed, I still think he is a better 12 than 10.

The real battle will, as usual, be up front, especially if the weather conditions are as nasty as forecast. Here, it is not easy to see that England have any obvious advantage. The Edinburgh front row of Allan Dell, Stuart McInally and Willem Nel has at the least held its own against the best anywhere. Grant Gilchrist and Toolis are sound in the lineout and good carriers and the back-row of Sam Skinner, Magnus Bradbury and Hamish Watson looks the best we have been able to field this spring.

All the same, this is a match between a visiting team understandably low in confidence and a home one still hurting after letting victory in Cardiff slip from their grasp. That defeat means of course that English fans, and surely the players, will have an eye on the Wales-Ireland game which kicks off two and a quarter hours before the match at Twickenham. If Wales win, they have secured the Six Nations title and the Grand Slam. A win for Ireland or a draw would mean that England have only – only – to beat Scotland to be champions. How the result in Cardiff will affect their mood is anyone’s guess. Scotland, in contrast, are in the happy position of knowing that what happens in Cardiff is of no importance to them. So they can address themselves to the task of repairing their tattered reputation.