Still India’s remarkable victory at The Gabba this week reminds us that the wheel always turns, albeit sometimes very slowly. Gregor Townsend was still at primary school in Galashiels when Gala’s Jim Aitken led Scotland to victory almost 38 years ago and none of the squad he named this week had yet been born.
The two most interesting names in this Scotland squad are Richie Gray and Cameron Redpath. I confess that, though delighted by Gray’s return to Glasgow, I suspected that, injuries having taken their toll, his international days might be over, even though he is four or five years younger than Alun Wyn Jones. However, he played so well in the two inter-city games that it was clear he is far from being a spent force.
The question now may be whether he starts on the field or on the bench. Though it is never easy to second-guess Townsend, I would assume that younger brother Jonny is likely to play the full 80 minutes. So it’s a question of dividing the other 80 between Richie and young Scott Cummings. Cummings has played so consistently well since coming into the Scotland team that it would seem harsh to relegate him to the bench. On the other hand Richie Gray’s peculiar ability to disrupt the opposition lineout might justify starting with him as the player best equipped to mark Maro Itoje on the English throw and steal ball from him.
Young Redpath has come on fast since his move from Sale to Bath even if the assertion that he is the best number 12 playing in the English Premiership may be a bit over the top. It is good that he has opted for Scotland despite being qualified for England by residence. I think we can ignore or forget all the discussion this has provoked. The fact is that of the 60 players from the four Lions countries who will start in any international around half will have probably been qualified to play for another country. Having grown up in England doesn’t prevent this son of Melrose and Scotland’s scrum-half Bryan from being Scottish.
There are five centres in the squad, the others being Duncan Taylor, Chris Harris, Huw Jones and James Lang. So Redpath may not feature at Twickenham. Nevertheless, I would like to see him start, because he is a very good and imaginative distributer and it would be fascinating to see him playing off Finn Russell. We haven’t really had a creative, as distinct from a hard-running, 12 for some time, and I can picture a Russell-Redpath combination being as effective as the partnership of Townsend himself and John Leslie was in the 1999 team which won the Five Nations title. That team, incidentally, scored 16 tries in the four championship matches, and played some wonderful running rugby.
We have sometimes beaten England at Murrayfield by heroic defence in somewhat dour encounters, but to beat Eddie Jones’ well-organised England I think we have to surprise and outwit them. Having a playmaker at 12 might divert some attention from Russell, certainly asks more questions, and gives him opportunities. We shall see. Meanwhile, we should remember that England are themselves very capable of scoring tries from long-range as well as from power-assaults within their opponents’ 22. What they are not always good at is re-adjusting to circumstances. So to beat them you have to nudge them out of their comfort zone. If allowed to control the match, England win. If they are taken by surprise and their control is loosened, they become vulnerable.
Of course all this speculation a fortnight before a match is unavoidably even more speculative than usual. This is a year in which the one thing one can say with certainty is that we are certain of very little. The virus and its consequences – lockdown, quarantine, players living in bubbles – govern all. It is indeed something of a surprise that Edinburgh’s match with Zebre in Parma is going on this afternoon. One assumes that all possible precautions have been taken. Nevertheless, Townsend must surely be waiting anxiously for news that the seven Edinburgh men from his Scotland squad who are involved today return unscathed and free from infection.
For Richard Cockerill it’s a chance to move Edinburgh up the table, but Zebre, who will field several of Italy’s current international squad, are far from being the pushovers they were a few years ago.