Fraser Brown: Scotland should embrace favourites tag and consider ballsy selection against underwhelming England

Scotland and Glasgow Warriors hooker writes exclusively for The Scotsman

I can’t remember ever playing when Scotland were favourites to beat England.

Last year we were the better team heading into the opening round at Twickenham but we certainly weren’t favourites. The favourites tag does not sit comfortably on Scottish shoulders but Gregor Townsend’s side are odds-on going into this weekend's match at Murrayfield.

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The tables have turned over the last three or four years and there has not been a period like this in the professional era. Scotland have lifted the Calcutta Cup in five of the last six years, with four wins and one draw.

Traditionally, England have always had more playing resources, more money, more power. More expectation. But there has always been belief throughout the squad, particularly in the last five or six years, that we would win. The difference now, perhaps, is that the belief and expectation has permeated into the Scottish rugby public.

Whilst everyone across world rugby seems keen to adopt underdog status and downplay expectations (except the Irish, and quite rightly), Scotland should embrace the expectation. Even then, it will take a performance of the highest order to get Scotland’s Six Nations title hopes back on track.

Scotland have got a really settled side – so too, have England. There have been some changes from the team that battled their way to third place at the World Cup but by and large, the core of that group remains. The same group who it must be said, massively underwhelmed and under-performed in last year’s Six Nations Championship.

I think it’s fair to say that this English team haven’t exactly had anyone on the edge of their seats with excitement watching them play over the last year or so. Even with an emphasis on letting players off the lead and playing a more entertaining style of rugby, there has been little evidence of a change in style over the first two games of the tournament.

To me this is a team that is built to not lose a game. The argument is that Test match rugby is always tight and it’s about possession, territory and playing in the right areas but you still have to be brave to beat the best. You have to get the risk and reward balance right and you have to be able to put your foot down and take the opportunity when it arises but I haven’t seen that from this England side, yet. There are some X-factor players but I struggle to see them going out and taking the game by the throat.

There will be changes this week to the England team, especially with the availability of Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence. At least one of them will play and, of the two, I’d be more concerned about Lawrence. He is different type of player to Tuilagi. He has the pace and power of Manu but he also great skills with the ball in hand.

In terms of the pack, I think the lineout will be a huge contest. Against France, with Grant Gilchrist running it, Scotland’s lineout functioned well but there are some serious operators in the English pack. Maro Itoje will look to disrupt in the air and is one of the best maul defenders in the game. Also, I think having George Martin back will be big for England. He brings presence and physicality and is a very good defender.

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Scotland will name their team on Thursday and I think if Blair Kinghorn’s fit, he’ll come straight back in. Blair’s one of the best 15s in the game at the minute. He brings an obvious attacking threat with his running game and has an absolute cannon of a boot on him. He’s also good in the air. Blair can cover 10 and his availability might free up a spot on the bench for an option other than Ben Healy.

If Blair starts then it looks like it’ll be a toss-up between the two Kyles, Steyn and Rowe, for the right-wing berth. Although it’s hard to leave Kyle Rowe out after the way he played in the first two games Kyle Steyn is Scotland’s best right winger when fit and I think he comes straight back in after missing the French match.

In the centres, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Sione Tuipulotu so far and Huw Jones has tended to drift in and out of games. He had a couple of really nice touches against Wales and defended well against France but he didn’t really get into the game as much as I would have liked. So it will be interesting to see if Gregor sticks with this combination. He could change it by bringing in Cameron Redpath at 12 and moving Sione to 13 but I think you’ve also got to look at Stafford McDowall’s form.

Stafford was exceptional for Glasgow at the weekend albeit, against a poor Dragons team, and I don’t think I’ve seen him have a bad game yet this season. He’s a big man, strong defensively and a powerful carrier. He’s also got a huge left boot which would give Scotland another kicking outlet. It would be a pretty ballsy call but if there were to be a change in the centres, I could really see Stafford slotting straight in.

In the pack, I’d imagine the front five would stay the same, more through lack of options than anything.

The coaches will be looking at how effective the back row were against France. I thought Rory Darge was the best player on the pitch. He did a lot of the unseen work usually covered by Matt Fagerson after he went off early. Jack Dempsey had some really good moments against France, some big carries, so getting him more involved in the game will be crucial for Scotland this week. I think it’s a back row that works but, interestingly, they haven’t played much together from Glasgow this season due to injuries.

The biggest change from England’s point of view is that they’ve brought in Felix Jones as defence coach.

He’d been with South Africa previously and is implementing a Springbok-style blitz defence and it will be fascinating to see how that goes on Saturday.

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South Africa shut Scotland’s attack down completely at the World Cup with their blitz and Scotland couldn’t cope. But that defence had been honed and refined for six years, tested and tested again, perfected. Jones has only had five weeks to work with England.

At the start of the game I’m sure they will come at Scotland all guns blazing. They will be tight, aggressive, high on the edges and will look to put Finn Russell and the midfield under all sorts of pressure. But there will be space in behind and out wide and I think it’s really important that Scotland get a fast start, get points on the board and try the best they can to take the sting out of the English blitz. They need to play smart, pick the right options and not allow the English defence to get momentum. If Scotland can nullify their defence for the first 20-25 minutes, then holes will start to appear.

Are they 100 per cent comfortable with their new system? Scotland need to test its robustness. Italy and Wales both managed to exploit it at times and Scotland are a much better attacking team than both of those sides but a balance needs to be struck.

They shouldn’t be overly eager to go to width and play too much because they could get shut down. Use of short sides will be important, taking the easy space and trying to narrow England as much as possible. If Scotland can start to pull at the threads of the English defensive system in the first 25-30 minutes it’s going to put a lot of pressure on them, particularly at the back end of the game. Do England believe in their system enough to have it put under such pressure?

It will require a top performance but I think Scotland will win by eight.



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