Calcutta Cup: Beating England will lift the nation more than entertaining rugby, says Gregor Townsend

Entertainment is overrated and Gregor Townsend would gladly forego any thrills and spills if Scotland could grind out a win at Twickenham on Saturday week.

Scotland celebrate Sam Johnson's try in the never-to-be-forgotten 38-38 draw with England at Twickenham in London. Picture: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Rugby took a battering during the autumn as critics lined up to have a pop at the sport during a series of turgid international matches.

Many blamed changes to the interpretation of the breakdown laws but Townsend believes the absence of fans was more relevant.

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Empty stadiums stripped much of the zip from games which degenerated into wars of attrition.

As Scotland coach, Townsend is mindful of the privileged position elite sport holds during these unusual times. Weekend matches offer something to look forward to for those stifled by the monotony of everyday life in lockdown.

Speaking at the virtual launch of this year’s Guinness Six Nations, Townsend said the best way to make the Scottish people happy would be to win the Calcutta Cup, citing the example of the victory over England in atrocious conditions 21 years ago as a triumph of substance over style.

“We understand the privileged position we’re in, getting to keep doing the thing we love doing,” he said.

“But we also understand the responsibility of giving people of Scotland a lift, and the best way of doing that is getting a win. I don’t think the style of the game is that important to our people, it’s the win.

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend at the virtual launch of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations. Picture: ©INPHO/Guinness Six Nations

“I remember in 2000 playing at Murrayfield and it snowed in the first 20 minutes of the game against England. There wasn’t much rugby played that day. I was at 13 and myself and Chris Paterson hardly touched the ball in the second half, he was at full-back. But we won the game and the joy that brought to the people of Scotland that day and through the week shows what victories mean.

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“I think it’s been overblown about the entertainment side and that’s hugely down to the fact there’s no supporters there. The year before you’d get games with forward battles, lots of kicking, defences on top but the atmospheres made it such a special occasion.

“We understand we don’t have the supporters but the contest is still going to be there and the team that wins that brings joy to their nation more than the style of rugby played.”

Scotland's win over England in 2000 wasn't pretty but it was celebrated with gusto. Here Duncan Hodge celebrates his try, with Gregor Townsend on his left. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Townsend’s side will have to overcome the weight of history if they are to prevail in their Six Nations opener. It has been 38 years since Scotland last won at Twickenham. To put it in perspective, Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean was number one when Jim Aitken led the visitors to victory.

It’s a rivalry that celebrates its 150th anniversary this year and recent seasons suggest Scotland under Townsend are bridging the gap with their oldest foes.

They won at Murrayfield in 2018 then retained the Calcutta Cup with that never-to-be-forgotten 38-38 draw 12 months later. England reclaimed the trophy in appalling conditions in Edinburgh last year but it was close and Townsend takes heart from those three games and also the prospect of playing at an empty stadium.

“It is an unusual year in that Twickenham isn’t Twickenham this year. It’s not a normal place because there will be no supporters there.

Captains at the virtual launch of the Guinness Six Nations Championship including Ireland's Johnny Sexton, Wales' Alun Wyn Jones, Scotland's Stuart Hogg and France's Charles Ollivon. Picture: ©INPHO/Guinness Six Nations

“You’ve got to make the most of that. England are now used to playing with no crowds so it’s less of a distraction or novelty for them. But it is an opportunity. We do understand that without 80,000 supporters there it doesn't feel as much of an away game, it feels more like 15 against 15 on a neutral ground. We just have to make sure we make the most of that opportunity.

“The level of competition we have in our squad and the quality of player we have here all point in our direction that belief should be there. But ultimately it is what happens on the day. How you start the game, how you manage the moments when England have domination or momentum and how you stay in the fight till the end. That is what we are building towards.

“We know the challenge that England bring. They are in great form and we have to be at our best to win down there. That would be the goal for all of us.”

In three Six Nations campaigns, Townsend has guided Scotland to seven wins, seven losses and that one draw. Last year’s broken campaign saw them defeat France, Italy and Wales but lose to Ireland and England for a fourth-place finish, level with the Irish who pipped them for third place by virtue of a better points difference.

Asked how he would measure success this year, Townsend said: “Improvement from our last campaign. We want to be a better team every time we get together. Those are the things you look for. First and foremost is our next game, we spent this week getting used to each other, getting used to the principles of our attack and defence, next week we look ahead to what challenge England bring. The process works like that. It’ll be on to Wales the following week. We’ll enjoy the process and see where we are at the end of the championship.”

Townsend played down the absence of five key players from the England pack, with Joe Marler, Joe Launchbury, Sam Underhill, Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler all out of the Scotland game.

“I don’t think it changes much, every team is going to be affected by injuries,” said Townsend. “We’ve got two experienced hookers missing but it gives opportunities to other players. England have got so much depth up front that they can put in some quality players and can go into the next two weeks with that squad that they have.”

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