England have lost only one Six Nations match there since 2012. Every visiting team finds it hard to win there – and this is almost as true of New Zealand and South Africa as it is of England’s Six Nations rivals. So the optimism that rises every second year when we go to Twickenham is always tempered by a grim sense of reality. Yet this year is already unusual, exceptional with the match being played before empty stands.
The only surprise when Gregor Townsend announced his team was that there were no surprises. Everyone, I would think, expected Cameron Redpath to get his first cap. Some might have preferred to see Gary Graham at No 8 rather than Matt Fagerson, but no doubt he will come on for the last half-hour or quarter when in theory the game may be breaking up. Again, there is some disappointment at the absence of Darcy Graham who scored two tries at Twickenham two years ago, but, given England’s fondness for a kicking game, there was a very strong case for preferring the experience of Sean Maitland in these days when wings are also classed as auxiliary full-backs.
There was a little more surprise when Eddie Jones decided to move his captain Owen Farrell from 12 to 10 and relegate George Ford to the bench, all the more so because Ford has been playing well for Leicester while Farrell, on account of Saracens’ demotion to the temporarily stalled Championship, hasn’t played a match since early in December. I doubt, however, if this matters much. Indeed Farrell may even benefit from the rest. He is not the most popular of players, even with some English fans, and, while he doesn’t have Finn Russell’s flair and ability to do the unexpected, he is a very accomplished player as well as being a ferocious competitor. One can’t ignore the fact that, just as Eddie Jones evidently trusts him, Warren Gatland has always wanted him in his Lions Test side, though admittedly at 12 rather than 10.
And so to Finn Russell. Argentinians used to know the Pumas’ fly-half Juan-Martin Hernandez as El Mago – the Magician – and Finn may be called that too. He has always had flair and been the master of the unexpected, but playing for Racing 92 in Paris has seen him mature as a tactician too. He knows now when to lie doggo, and play it cool and vary his game, realising that in a tight match you may have to wait for an opportunity to present itself. But he has also become the master of a variety of attacking kicks – chips, grubber and diagonals – a master too of the audacious cut-out pass.
On his good days nobody reads the game better. He will be closely marked, so closely that space may appear for others. It is going to be fascinating to see how young Redpath and Stuart Hogg play off him. It’s also important that he has such good rapport with his scrum-half Ali Price, to my mind still underrated, even in Scotland. Like Greig Laidlaw before him he can be trusted not to deliver rubbish ball to his partner.
We rely much on Finn – too much, some may say – but, if we are to have a real chance of winning, the forwards must achieve at least parity. England may be without two or three of their first-choice pack, but they have such strength in depth that they are still fielding an uncommonly powerful and skilful set of forwards. The ability at least to hold our own and not concede penalties in the set scrum is vital, likewise to be secure on our own lineout ball.
When we drew at Twickenham in 1989 the England coach Geoff Cooke somewhat indignantly described our back-row of John Jeffrey, Derek White and Finlay Calder as “scavengers”. Effective scavenging from Jamie Ritchie, Matt Fagerson and Hamish Watson would be more than welcome today.
The Scotland defence has improved greatly since the World Cup in Japan. It will need to be tight and resolute this afternoon. In particular we must avoid giving away penalties which can be kicked into touch deep in our 22. There are times when even the most voracious jackal must judge that it is safer to let the opposition keep the ball than to attempt a turnover that isn’t on.
Well, as usual hours before kick-off at Twickenham I’ve convinced myself that this is a match we can win, even against the odds which have England as overwhelming favourites. According to one respected journalist “the ball is in England’s court”. We shall see.