One benefit for Gregor Townsend in naming his team for Saturday’s big match a day before his English counterpart Eddie Jones is that, by and large, he could talk in the main about his team and the challenge that lies ahead.
It remains to be seen what Jones has to say today but, if the team announcements had been the other way around, Townsend may have expended much time responding to what had emanated from the Aussie, who hides a frequently barbed tongue behind that ever-present mischievous grin.
As it was, there were some comments by Jones, made at last month’s Six Nations launch, to draw upon and were put to Townsend.
“Let’s just wait and see,” said the wily England boss when asked about Scotland’s emergence as potential title contenders before things went awry in Cardiff.
“They’re big darlings, aren’t they? Bright guy, Gregor, eh? Makes me feel like it might be time to retire when you’ve got a good young coach like that coming through.
“How excited do people get when the ball goes side to side with Scotland? Murrayfield grows an extra 10,000 people. But to play that way under the pressure of expectation is a different question.”
Townsend wasn’t about to bite yesterday, though.
“I thought that was a compliment,” he said. “He was talking about us back then and obviously that’s a good thing. I don’t want to give away what our attacking structure or way of playing is… but you have to go forward in rugby. There are different ways of doing that.
“If you go side to side you won’t go forwards. I wouldn’t say that is something we like doing. We certainly want to attack space.”
Jones targeted Wales stand-off Rhys Patchell, questioning his “bottle” in the run-up to England’s 12-6 win at Twickenham in the last round of games. The form of Scotland playmaker Finn Russell, described as “flaky” by former England player Ugo Monye this week, may well have that spiked tongue twitching with anticipation but Townsend insisted any mind games would be blocked out and chose instead to heap praise on Jones, who has led back-to-back champions England to 23 wins in 24 Tests. “No, it is not something we have talked about,” said the Scotland boss. “He [Eddie] is a brilliant coach, the last two years have shown that, what he has done with this England team, the consistency, the striving to get better.
“He has a great coaching team around him too. They are very efficient in all aspects. You can’t look at them and think that they haven’t covered off one aspect. They have covered everything. That is what you see when you play the best coached teams.”
Of course it will be the players who decide the outcome and, while acknowledging England’s strength in all areas, Townsend highlighted the famed stand-off/inside centre pivot of George Ford and Owen Farrell, pictured.
“They are outstanding, world class in terms of what they do in attack,” said Townsend. “They get on the ball a lot as a duo. They can put people into space and mix things up with their running and kicking games. They are huge threats.
“We have to make sure we know where they are on the field and put pressure on them and not give them easy options.”
Saracens and Lions star Farrell has not been in full training this week due to an unspecified leg injury but is expected to be named in today’s team.
“He’s very important. If any team had Owen Farrell, he would be a key player in attack,” continued Townsend. “He is a leader on and off the field. I was fortunate to be down at Saracens earlier this season so I got to see him train and see him in meetings. He’s a world-class player but he’s also like having a coach on the field.
“The way England use him, playing at 12, means they have an extra decision-maker, an extra kicker, an extra passer and he’s also shown this season that his running game is pretty strong.”
Townsend made his Scotland debut against England at Twickenham as a 19-year-old and only managed one win, the 2000 game when he played centre outside matchwinner Duncan Hodge, in ten meetings. That is one more than the team have managed in the past decade, with nine losses, including a World Cup game, and a draw since 2008.
“In 2000, we lost every game in that campaign but we won the final game [against England] and it was such a huge boost to the country,” he recalled. “The other four defeats seemed to be forgotten, so we know what it means to our supporters and what it means to our players.”
Townsend is not a coach to go in for pre-match public breastbeating but he had no qualms about stressing that a match between the sport’s oldest rivals does carry extra resonance. “Yeah, it does have extra,” he said. “I grew up watching these games in the late 80s and early 90s and I saw all the passion that was involved. I was lucky enough to play in a few and it’s certainly the fixture that brings more focus and more edge. You understand how much it means to the public.
“But England always been good. Even in 1990, a famous [Grand Slam] win for us, they were good. Whenever they’ve come here, in my experience, they’ve been a good team. Now they’re number two in the world. They’ve won a huge number of games in the last two years. sSo we’re perfectly aware we’re playing one of the best teams, a team in form, and we have to be at our very best.”