It is the most keenly anticipated Calcutta Cup match of the millennium and it is easy to see why.
While the Scottish fans have traditionally looked at this fixture with hope in their hearts, sprinkled with a fine topping of expectation, this season things are very different. Scottish fans actually believe that their team is better than England and they haven’t said that, hand on heart, for over twenty years.
THE FRONT ROW
Everything starts with the front row as anyone who has been caught by a prop forward at the post match bar will know by now.
Remember the lead up to RWC’03 when England’s six-man scrum, with two players in the sin bin, held the mighty All Blacks at bay in Wellington. Those days are long gone and, if a selectors first task is to pick the right team, Eddie Jones may have made two very big mistakes. Dan Cole is there because Kieran Brookes has only just returned from injury but looking at the Cole’s recent form, Jones should have started Brookes had he turned up on crutches.
Cole had a miserable World Cup and his ordinary form has continued. He was part of the Leicester Tigers’ pack that made history a few weeks ago against Saracens, becoming the first team to every concede three penalty tries in a Premiership match and every one of them from a set scrum. Cole wasn’t there for the first (he started on the bench) or the third (he was in the sin bin) but he was part of the problem right enough.
His nemesis that day? Mako Vunipola, who has never looked like a world beater in the scrum, at least not before getting Cole yellow carded. Vunipola is on England’s bench, while Dan Cole Starts. Both those decisions can’t be correct.
Joe Marler is the starting tighthead and he was holding up the Harlequins scrum that conceded a penalty try to lowly Worcester Warriors not long ago. Marler conceded two scrum penalties against Australia in that must win World Cup match and he was pulled off the field before the 50 minute mark after a warning from the referee Romain Poite. Give a dog a bad name...
England will expect to boss the set scrum, they always do. Cole will be better and the bulky presence of Dylan Hartley alongside him will help but England’s scrum is far from the fearsome weapon it once was. Scotland will attack where the enemy thinks he is strongest.
THE BACK ROW
Scotland start with two sevens. England, even after four years of arguing over the minutiae of Chris Robshaw’s game, still start this match with two genuine blindside flankers. Whodathunkit?
The Scots like to play an expansive, high tempo, ball-in-hand style that should reward the greater mobility and tactical awareness of twin sevens, Johns Barclay and Hardie, both have superb rugby brains.
But look at Eddie Jones’ selection in the middle of the team and their primary asset: Danny Care (runner), George Ford (runner/distributer), Owen Farrell (kicker/distributer) and Jonathan Joseph (runner). I know this is a tad simplistic but I make that 3-1 in favour of running rugby and, this is the trump card, Eddie Jones’ ego will demand that he do something different from Stuart Lancaster, he will want to put his mark on HIS team come Saturday.
England are here to play some rugby and looking at the defensive frailty of Scotland’s back line they’d be bonkers not to.
So now that we are looking at a game that will probably be faster and looser than anyone anticipates, now would you rather start with two sevens or two sixes in your third row? If it’s good enough for Wales and the Wallabies, it should work for Scotland.
Remember back to the Frank Hadden era when Scotland used to win everywhere but the score board. The forward pack would dominate possession and territory and the backs would run up blind alleys and lose the ball. Well the opposite is now true and Scotland’s back line has threats across the field.
During the World Cup the Scots proved the most efficient European team at scoring tries (i.e. time in possession divided by tries scored). They grabbed a total of 17 touchdowns in all, 14 of which went to the electric back line.
If the Scottish big men can provide a decent supply of front foot ball then Scotland’s back division should score their first try (or tries) against England at Murrayfield since Simon Danielli crossed the line back in 2004!
England nine Danny Care is great to watch because he injects tempo into a game with all the urgency of a junkie making his first hit of the weekend but when it comes to game management, and the forecast is wet, Greig Laidlaw is the master. His kicking from hand and tactical awareness is second to none and England’s wingers, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell, are not renowned for their aerial work.
Incidentally Care will take a quick tap penalty at some stage and try and milk a yellow card so fellas...don’t. Even if he is five metres from the Scottish try line that will only mean a penalty try and a spell on the naughty step so...just don’t.
It is difficult thing to quantify but you get the feeling that the tables have turned, Scotland expects while England hopes. England are rebuilding. Jones has had almost no time to influence what his squad do other than hammer home some new codes. And two key players for the visitors will be badly missed: Kieran Brookes the giant tighthead who did so much damage to Glasgow whilst in Northampton colours and Manu Tuilagi.
There is a feeling that if a confident and competent Scotland team with the World Cup wind in their sails can’t beat England at Murayfield, when the visitors are missing key personnel and their new coaching staff have only scratched the surface, then perhaps they never will.