Six Nations: Scotland experience key to victory

Scott Johnson jokes with Henry Pyrgos during training in Reading. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Scott Johnson jokes with Henry Pyrgos during training in Reading. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Share this article
Have your say

SCOTLAND’S interim coach Scott Johnson has spent the past two weeks doing something similar, albeit with a different accent, to what Frank Hadden did on taking over the national side in 2005-6.

He has urged his players to remember the good things about themselves, the skills that they do possess, the good days when things have gone right and they have beaten England, Australia, South Africa and Argentina in recent years, and to believe.

He has also stripped back the game-plan, much like Hadden did, and asked them to play to their strengths by preying on English frailties. Be clever, play in England’s half and turn their confidence back on them.

England, he told the players this week, are the same as any team – under pressure they make mistakes. They key is whether Scotland have the ability to squeeze that pressure and hold it for lengthy spells in front of a baying home crowd at Twickenham this evening. It is a big ask.

But, let us start with analysing the glimmers of hope for Kelly Brown’s Scotland side. The Scottish back three of Stuart Hogg, Tim Visser and new face Sean Maitland is a key part of the Scottish attacking plans. Maitland and Visser have never played in a Six Nations match before, but both wingers are confident, proven performers and both, bizarrely, scored twice on their last outings at Twickenham, Visser for the Barbarians against England and Maitland for the Crusaders in the famous Super Rugby match against the Sharks moved to London nearly two years ago while Christchurch was reeling from the effects of a major earthquake.

So they know their way to the Twickenham line. Both players were fast-tracked into the Scotland team virtually as soon as they could because they have proven finishing skills. That trio have the ability to slice open any quality of defence but, more importantly, whereas Scotland’s ability to ask questions and break the line has been improving, these are those golden players with the talents to exploit breaks and half-breaks, the penalty-box strikers football clubs pay millions for simply because they turn potential into reality.

That is new for Scotland and, furthermore, where Visser has been increasingly marked out of the game at the top level by defenders commonly doubling-up, England cannot afford that tonight with Maitland lurking on the other wing. They have two talents to watch, which, in turn, should free up space for Hogg and others. But Scotland need ball to make that happen. That starts, as ever, up front and the forward battle and, with both sides naming strong replacements, this will be an 80-minute affair. And there is hope for Scotland there too. This England team is coming off a big win over the All Blacks and so should be full of confidence, but it is not an experienced line-up.

Lancaster has stuck with the pack that defeated New Zealand, bar replacing the injured prop Alex Corbisiero with Quins’ loosehead Joe Marler, which means no instant return for 42-times capped Dylan Hartley. Is that a gamble? Corbisiero has become a Test-quality prop and Marler is a tough, nuggety lad, but he has much to learn yet in the Test arena.

The Leicester dynamo Tom Youngs wins his fifth cap at hooker, Marler has five caps and behind them Wasps lock Joe Launchbury is a promising talent, but again only has four caps. Geoff Parling, the 29-year-old lock, only made his Test debut a year ago and, while the back row is a hugely talented one, it boasts just 34 caps between them.

By contrast, the Scottish back row has nearly 100, and the pack many more Test matches behind them than the home one. The size of the players used to be a perennial problem for Scotland, but not any more, with Richie Gray the biggest forward on the field today at 6ft 9in and 20 stones and, with the 38 stones of Jim Hamilton and Euan Murray on the right side of the scrum, they harbour genuine hopes of taking the England scrum on.

Stats and lies, I know, and Test experience is no substitute for class, but it is relevant and could be central to Scottish chances. This Scottish pack has learned much about retaining ball, the value of a solid scrum and secure lineout, when to commit men to rucks and when to stand off, and the importance of consistency in all of that when the legs are burning, the lungs tightening and the head spinning in the rarefied atmosphere of Test rugby.

The Six Nations and Calcutta Cup experience is still new to a core of young England players – only three of the starting line-up have faced Scotland at Twickenham before – and, while undoubtedly good players, the key for Scotland is to make them question themselves. If England start well, the pack get on the front foot, Owen Farrell starts spraying the ball across the Twickers turf and runners like Alex Goode, Mike Brown and Chris Ashton get their hands on the ball, then this will be one hard day at the office for the Scots.

But, if Scotland gain parity up front, and two key areas that let them down more than others in 2012 – their defence and work at the contact area – shows improvement it will be game on. If, then, Scotland can keep the match in the melting point, the scores tight, Greig Laidlaw kicking penalties that come his way and no soft tries being handed over, that is when experience starts to count.

It is when inexperienced players question what to do next, why the game is not going as was expected, and is why Johnson has been telling his players that they need to get to the hour-mark still in the game. Get there and English heads will start to buzz, the Twickenham crowd takes on a deathly quiet, and Scottish voices are heard piercing the London air.

Was that one of the most complete performances witnessed by an England team in November, or was that a rare All Blacks side running on empty at the end of a long season? Play for an hour and you earn the right to mess with the heads. There can no hiding the bare facts of how tough an assignment this is for any Scotland team, never mind one with such a young back-line that looks promising, but is still – Sean Lamont aside – new to the Test game.

There have been joyous moments, fleeting bursts of excitement when Gregor Townsend tore up the English defence, Alan Tait scored two great tries, Chris Paterson launched a terrific counter-attack and Simon Taylor sprinted clear for a score, and the sublime bit of magic from Max Evans for his chip-and-chase try two years ago.

But the abiding memory of Twickenham remains one of a ringing head, a depression deepened by the deafening roars only 70,000 or so Englishmen and women can produce, and the thundering ‘Swing Low’, as we slump out of the Twickenham stand and join the throngs heading back into Richmond, the bubble of hope burst again.

There is a reason why England rarely lose the Calcutta Cup at home. It is that they rarely succumb to complacency there. The players’ focus even on cold, dark and wet nights does not slip as it can away from home, largely thanks to the coruscating singing and chanting that seems to emerge from deep within the bowels of the 80,000-capacity stadium.

Even if it does, they come back. Unlike when at Murrayfield and the home crowd lifts a Scottish team striving to fashion its own blood and thunder, and you can see English faces draining, eyes looking to the heavens and then the tunnel, seeking divine intervention or at least the sanctuary of the dressing room. At Twickenham, an inner strength emerges to respond to the fight and, in all but four occasions since Richmond’s old cabbage patch became England’s home, carry them to the final whistle.

Scotland did win the Calcutta Cup on ten occasions prior to that, but the four Scotland teams to have triumphed at Twickenham rank among the best – the 1925 Grand Slam team captained by GPS Macpherson, the 1938 Triple Crown winners led by Wilson Shaw, 1971 side led by Peter Brown and Jim Aitken’s 1983 team.

There were no wins there for great Scotland caps Hugh McLeod, Ken Scotland or Andy Irvine, for the Hastings brothers, David Sole, Craig Chalmers or Gregor Townsend. Close-run things, definitely, the odd draw and that 1999 match, lost by three points; a game in which a few successful goal-kicks would ultimately have left Jim Telfer’s team with a fourth Grand Slam. Close but no cigar.

Scottish teams that have succeeded have been very good. They have also found ways to put England off their stride, starting with the pack and building through the defensive effort and an ability to grasp points with a vicious hunger.

There will not be complacency in today’s England team, coaches Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree being known for their distaste of that corrosive attitude. Skipper Chris Robshaw has spoken of his respect for his opposite leader, Kelly Brown, from Brown’s heroics in a Saracens jersey predominantly, but he has warned his side that Scotland will be as tough in many ways as the All Blacks.

He has demanded that his side seek to return swiftly to the standard of desire, fight and dominance that they left Twickenham with two months ago, as part of a campaign to turn England into a World Cup-winning side in 2015. They have lost key talismen to injury in Manu Tuilagi and Corbisiero, but they have enviable strength across the squad.

There will be a desire in the home camp to begin to move on from the basic game-plan of 2012 that brought incremental improvements until the great year end result, while Johnson and his forwards chief Dean Ryan return to basics and seek to turn the pressure on the hosts in the way the 1983 team did so successfully.

The odds are stacked against Scotland, but there are reasons for Scots to hope and we learned long ago not to write off any Scottish underdog. The stage is set for another enthralling chapter in the history of the Calcutta Cup.