PETER HORNE believes that he and Finn Russell have the potential to create a Scottish midfield axis in a similar mould to the much-vaunted George Ford and Owen Farrell partnership which is so crucial to England’s attacking game.
The opening two rounds of this Six Nations have been a chastising experience for Russell, who came into the tournament with a reputation as one the most exciting playmakers in world rugby but is now facing questions as to whether he has the temperament to perform the more mundane functions of running a game in the international arena.
Some of the criticism has been on the hysterical side of shrill, prompting head coach Gregor Townsend to give his number ten a ringing endorsement during yesterday’s team announcement press conference.
And now the man who was brought into the side to be a steadying influence on Russell’s outside shoulder against France after the opening weekend debacle in Cardiff, and who will fulfil a similar function during Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash at BT Murrayfield, has spoken about how he believes the pair can work together to unpick England’s defence.
“We’re probably not at the same stage as Ford and Farrell, but I think we’ve got a really good relationship. We work well together. He’s put me through plenty of holes, and I like to think I take a little bit of the pressure off him. I like to think it’s rare that you see Finn have a bad game and I’m outside him,” said Horne.
“When you’re watching at the weekend, every time there’s a stoppage we’re over chatting. We get on really well. It’s the same with Greig Laidlaw or Ali Price, if they’re on, we try and get together as much as we can. I think that’s a vital part of the game, making sure that we’re all on the same wavelength, we’ve all got ideas so its about making sure we collate them and run with it.
“Into multi-phase, a lot of the time it is myself that’ll be calling. When you’re at 10 you’ve got so much to worry about. You’ve got a backfield, you’ve got guys coming up to smash you, you’ve got forwards working off 9, so it’s rare that you’ve got time to look around and see what’s happening outside you. So, you can’t underestimate the value of having somebody out there just organising and calling new things. You just come round the corner, give them the thumbs up and then we can play off it.”
It is also not unusual for Horne to step up to first receiver, which is a role he is comfortable with having picked up eight of his 30 caps so far at stand-off.
“I think that’s one of the things I can bring to the game – I can jump in there and help bring our other players into the game, so there were certainly some times when I was stepping up to first receiver [against France],” he explained.
“I guess my role in the team is almost to try and make everyone else look good. I’m quite happy to do that – just work hard and hopefully create a bit more space for everyone else around me. By doing that, that will hopefully create a little bit more space for me to then start attacking.”
“I’ve been running at 10 and 12 for the last couple of years. I do both … mix it up.”
The biggest gripe with Russell after the France game was not with his decision-making but the unforced errors, and particularly his line kicking which was way off target on several occasions. There is not much Horne or any other player can do about that except encourage the stand-off to be more careful.
Relishing first cap against England
Horne was not involved in last year’s Calcutta Cup hammering at Twickenham – in fact, this will be his first cap against the red rose brigade – but he is acutely aware of Scotland’s miserable recent history in this fixture.
However, rather than be daunted by the prospect of taking on such a formidable force, he says the players are enthused by the chance to really test themselves on Saturday.
“It’s probably a more exciting challenge. You play the game to play against the best players in the world and looking across from me will probably be Owen Farrell and he is one of the best players in the world. So, for me personally, it’s really exciting,” he reasoned.
“You want to test yourself against these guys and see where you’re at. There is not too much pressure on us, we can go out and have a real crack at them. I don’t think daunting is the right word.”
Which brings Horne neatly back round to discussing the midfield battle, and specifically the defensive task his team face in trying to neutralise the the threat of Ford and Farrell with ball in hand.
“They are both really special players. Ford is obviously a really talented, special player, but Farrell outside him just makes him tick – takes a lot of the pressure off him,” he said.
“They are both fantastic at taking the ball to the line and trying to draw people onto them and then putting other people through. In the past, some of our coaches have spoken with Sarries coaches and been down to training with them and I have picked up little drills that Owen does after training to try and help my own game. I am really excited to have a crack against him.”
“They are going to have cool, calm heads. They are both experienced players. They have a lot of caps and they’ve been on Lions tours and so on. It’s tough to knock them but we have to make sure that we put them under pressure. If we give them an armchair ride, that’s what they want. They’ll look to cut us to bits so we have to be up in the face and make sure that they see a relentless, good defensive wall – which hopefully they will do.”
Horne was then asked what, specifically, has impressed him most about England under Eddie Jones.
“I think the way they mix their game up… they are very well drilled, they are difficult to break down,” he replied. “There are times, when you freeze things, it looks like there is a lot of space – but trying to get the ball there [to the space] is very, very difficult.
“They do come up hard, they defend really well, they’ve got a good system. They’re well drilled and they’ve got some outstanding individuals that can break the game up.
“Some of Anthony Watson’s tries a couple of weeks ago against Italy… if you pause it when he gets the ball, he’s got no right to finish, but that is the sort of thing these guys can do. If anything that should inspire all of our boys to bring out their best performance of the season because we know that we have to be on point all the time against them or else they are very clinical.”
As for how Scotland counter the myriad threats their opponents will pose on Saturday? Well, there is no easy answer.
“You want to be up for the game and make sure we’re going out there to be physical and ready to go at them. At the same time, we need to be calm and in control,” mused Horne.
“We have spoken a lot about that and it’s something that was probably disappointing about that Wales game. We maybe got caught and panicked a little bit, whereas last week [against France] we showed a lot more mature performance. We showed a lot more resilience in our performance as well. That is something we hope to build into this England game at the weekend.”