The first breath of spring is in the west London air and something similar can be said for Scottish rugby, which is enjoying an upturn in fortunes after spending much of this millennium at the bottom of a large hole.
In that time Scotland have produced some competitive teams. Look at the forward pack that took the field one decade ago: Simon Taylor, Jason White, Nathan Hines, Jim Hamilton, Euan Murray – a handy bunch.
The class of 2007 bullied almost every opponent but matches could have been measured in months rather than minutes and still Scotland’s back line wouldn’t have crossed the try line.
That 2007 team was lopsided in favour of the forwards but today’s side is almost equally biased towards the backs where the strike runners Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Tim Visser can all create havoc, especially with the vision of Finn Russell directing the traffic. Most, if not all, of Scotland’s game breakers are to be found in the back line, which is a problem in itself.
There are certain universal rules of rugby that apply, especially in the Six Nations, and chief among them is that you can’t compete without a set-piece game worthy of the name. Scotland’s scrum has been woeful and their re-starts, especially against Ireland, were equally bad. Today will tell us whether Vern Cotter has ripped up the unwritten rules of the game or whether they have bitten back. There is at least a suspicion that Scotland resemble Wile E Coyote – sprinting over the edge of a cliff, going hell for leather before gravity inevitably has the last word.
That is not to say that today’s visitors can’t win. They have a counter-puncher’s chance, they have threats, the forwards are small (by comparison) but smart and players like Hamish Watson and Fraser Brown are in the Lions’ melting pot, which no one predicted six weeks ago.
England, moreover, are spooked. Eddie Jones is the consummate media operator but he lashed out at the press last week when put on the spot over Owen Farrell’s injury and, however else it happened, we can safely assume that the coach’s dog was not involved. What’s eating Eddie Jones? That world record of wins, the Italian farce from which he emerged a graceless winner, the fact that England have yet to hit their straps, the whiteboard revelations (or non- revelations)? Or might it just be that for the first time in many a long year Scotland pose a genuine threat at Twickenham with the Triple Crown, the Championship and places on the plane to New Zealand this summer all at stake.
England’s impressive forward fire power will prove too much, or so they believe. The home side will milk penalties, dominate territory and, unlike Alun-Wyn Jones, they will take the three when the opportunity arises. Three becomes six and six becomes nine because penalties have a tendency to self perpetuate. With a cushion England start to play and holes appear in the Scots’ defence, tired by constant tackling. England turn to their “finishers” and score a couple of tries in the final quarter to lend some gloss to what looks like an emphatic win.
That is the narrative that Jones will be preaching to his players this morning in the final team meeting and Cotter has to offer an alternative, equally credible story to his own disciples, which will run something like this.
If Owen Farrell misses the match, England lose kicker and leader. It isolates George Ford tactically and the stand-off is naturally wayward off the tee, leaving valuable points on the field. Scotland pepper the English wings with high balls and the Visser/Seymour combo recovers a good many of them. Ali Price is a terrier at the heels of the English No 8, tackling Hughes/Vunipola at the base of the scrum before he works up a head of steam.
The scrums are a mess but neither side has a significant advantage and the visitors use their possession better than the home team. Russell mixing it up and stepping out of harm’s way when facing the onslaught of the big English forwards like a modern-day matador. He picks out the runners that can take advantage of the inevitable doglegs in the English defence because James Haskell has the authority to jump out the line and Ben Te’o does so anyway because he is playing in the unfamiliar position of inside centre.
And in one respect at least which narrative wins the day doesn’t matter too much in the bigger scheme of things. Jason O’Halloran is as level-headed as they come and the Scotland backs’ coach offered this thought yesterday.
“I am not too worried about the outcome,” said the Kiwi, “I just want us to play really well. If we play really well I think we’ll all come off and be happy with that regardless of the outcome, win, lose or draw. What I don’t want is for us to come off the field and go ‘if only’ or feel like we’ve let ourselves down in any way.”
He’s right, the team needs to concentrate on performance rather than outcome. This Scotland side is hugely inexperienced and many of the players are absurdly young; the average age of almost half the squad; Ali Price, Zander Fagerson, Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg, Jonny Gray, Hamish Watson and Huw Jones is just 23. Their time will come.
And then look at those stuck on the sidelines who will further strengthen this side, dramatically in the case of WP Nel and Alasdair Dickinson. Grant Gilchrist, Josh Strauss, David Denton and Adam Ashe will all add some impetus to the forward pack while Duncan Taylor, Peter Horne and Blair Kinghorn will add to the competition in midfield, albeit too late for Cotter’s last campaign.
If the Kiwi had set out this season to embarrass Mark Dodson, after the SRU boss declined to extend the coach’s contract, he could hardly have made a better fist of things and victory today would be the icing on the cake.
Howls of anguish will demand that Cotter is persuaded to change his mind even though there are 800,000 reasons per annum why he can’t and won’t.
Let’s hope today’s game is competitive, compelling and still in the balance going into the final quarter, which will put the wind up the hosts.
I suspect that England’s superior ball-carrying ability will wear down the Scots in an attritional encounter but even if England equal the All Blacks’ record of 18 successive victories, Scottish rugby is stretching and yawning after a long, bleak winter. Whether or not it arrives today, their time is coming.