Capacity crowds are commonplace now but not so long ago there would often be the embarrassing sight of empty seats at Scotland’s home Six Nations. A losing team is one thing but a dull, losing team makes for an even harder sell.
For much of the Six Nations era, the Scots were routinely allergic to the opposition tryline but the record in the biggest draw of all, the biennial visit of oldest rivals England, continues to be the one most likely to elicit a cringe.
A measly two, yes two, Scotland touchdowns have been registered at Murrayfield in this fixture since Five Nations became Six at the turn of the century and there hasn’t been one for the home crowd to cheer for a full 14 years, dating back to wing Simon Danielli’s chargedown consolation effort against Clive Woodward’s world champions.
The only other was Duncan Hodge’s aquaplaning effort which denied an English Grand Slam, and a Scottish whitewash, in 2000.
The excitement which has grown in the past three or four years around this Scotland team owes much to the fact that tries, often of the thrilling variety, have become almost guaranteed rather than an occasional treat.
Dynamic openside flanker Hamish Watson has become a vital weapon linking the forwards with an exciting backline and he insists the aim will be to break the English defence to give Scotland the best chance of ending their ten-year winless run.
“England still defend very well, but just looking at ourselves as a team, I think compared to ten years ago, five years ago, we do score a lot more tries, so we’ve been working on that,” said the Edinburgh back-rower.
“If we put England to one side for a while, we are scoring more tries against most of the other teams, so we’ve got to try to implement that against England.”
Of course, Scotland have managed to beat England without scoring tries, as the boots of Chris Paterson and Dan Parks were enough in the back-to-back home triumphs of 2006 and 2008 and the next match in the sequence nudged the unbeaten Murrayfield record to three after a 15-15 draw.
“I don’t think we have to score tries to win, but that means our defence is going to have to be pretty top notch,” said Watson.
“In the past we’ve had all kicks from Mossy [Paterson] to win games before and I think the players and the fans would take that if it came to that.
“Obviously we’re going to try to stick to our gameplan and try to score tries, but if it comes down to that we’ll definitely take that.”
Ironically there have been plenty of Scottish tries at Twickenham down the years but no wins since 1983.
“Last year at Twickenham [a record 61-21 loss] we got three tries, but that was mainly at the end when the game was definitely gone,” continued Watson. “As a team we’ve got a very good back-line, an exciting back-line and forwards who can also score tries.
“So we’re very capable of scoring tries… but a big emphasis on this game is going to be our defence. We’ve got to defend well and that will give us a chance against them.
“It [ten years] is a very long time not to beat a team and we’ve got to try to put that right.”
He may be Manchester-born but Watson has a Christian name befitting his Scottish grandparentage and is braced for an emotion-charged occasion come kick-off late on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s a match that for most Scots, most Scottish fans, it is the biggest game of the year, but you’ve got to control that emotion as best you can,” he said as he hopes to be named in Gregor Townsend’s team this morning for what would be an 18th cap.
After leaking early tries in both the first two games, recovering more successfully against France than they did sliding to defeat in Wales, Watson knows a similarly slow start will be difficult to dig themselves out of against Eddie Jones’s champions.
“We’re going to have to start well, which obviously we tried to do against France,” he said. “It didn’t turn out that way and we did really well to get back into that game, but against England they are a good team and you want to start well against them and put them under the cosh.”
Scotland’s home stadium has been the scene of a few hoodoos being shaken off in recent years, including a first opening-weekend win for 11 years last season over Ireland and the snapping of a nine-game losing streak to Wales. A decade-long drought against France was ended the year before and Watson agrees that getting one over on England for the first time since 2008 would be the ideal addition to that collection.
“Hopefully... we’re going to try our best,” he said. “England are doing pretty well at the moment. They’ve only lost one out of the last 24 so they’re a very good team and we’ll have to be at our best if we want to beat them.
“But we’re also at Murrayfield which we’ve been very good at recently. We’ve only lost recently to New Zealand there, so it’s tough for teams to come to Murrayfield and win at the moment, so hopefully we’ll see.”