SCOTLAND v ENGLAND @ BT MURRAYFIELD IN EDINBURGH, SATURDAY 24TH FEBRUARY 2018.
Kick-off 4.45pm. Live on BBC, FR2, TV3, DMAX, NBC
Scotland: Stuart Hogg; Tommy Seymour, Huw Jones, Peter Horne, Sean Maitland; Finn Russell, Greig Laidlaw; Gordon Reid, Stuart McInally, Simon Berghan, Grant Gilchrist, Jonny Gray, John Barclay©, Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson. Substitutes: Scott Lawson, Jamie Bhatti, WP Nel, Tim Swinson, Dave Denton, Ali Price, Nick Grigg, Blair Kinghorn.
England: M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, O Farrell, J May; G Ford, D Care; M Vunipola, D Hartley, D Cole, J Launchbury, M Itoje, C Lawes, C Robshaw, N Hughes. Substitutes: J George, J Marler, H Williams, G Kruis, S Underhill, R Wigglesworth, B Te’o, J Nowell.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
VICTORY over France last time out steadied the badly rocking boat and rescued Scotland’s Six Nations campaign after an opening weekend capitulation against Wales, but the message coming out of the home camp all this week has been that they know they must improve again – significantly – to have any chance of picking up a first win against the Auld Enemy in a decade.
The charitable view is that the France game was a major step forward for Scotland in that they found a way to win ugly, but a more jaded observer might suggest that the reality is that they made very hard work of beating a French team lacking in shape, imagination and desire. The truth is perhaps somewhere in the middle.
Gregor Townsend has kept faith with the same starting fifteen as he sent out against France but made three changes to the bench. Nick Grigg has been on fire for Glasgow Warriors and fully deserves his call-up in place of the unconvincing Chris Harris as midfield cover, while the selection of the previously injured second-row Tim Swinson ahead of Ben Toolis is clearly aimed at having extra belligerence coming on during the final quarter – but it is the inclusion of tight-head prop WP Nel ahead of Jon Welsh which is the real gamble.
The South African born 31-year-old has been out of action since breaking his arm against Samoa at the start of last November’s Test series, and given that he is covering the most specialise and the most attritional position park, everyone in blue will be praying that starting tight-head Simon Berghan doesn’t pick up a knock early on.
Finn Russell’s boot
The other big question is over the form of mercurial stand-off Finn Russell. His kicking radar has been on the blink in recent weeks, but there were definite signs of improvement in the way he managed the game against France after the previous week’s horror-show in Wales – but we are yet to see him grab a game by the scruff of the neck in this championship in the way he did against Australia last summer – and the fear is that the longer things don’t click for the 25-year-old, the harder it is going to be for him to rediscover his mojo.
Russell must strike a balance today between focussing on getting his basic skills – such as kicking to touch – right, whilst not tightening up so much that his trademark unpredictability remains hidden.
Last year, more than 14,000 Scots took part in the Kiltwalk helping to raise over £2.6 million for over 780 charities across Scotland. Thanks to the extra 40% from The Hunter Foundation, for every £100 raised by a walker, your chosen charity receives £140. The first Kiltwalk of the year is in Glasgow on Sunday, 29 April. The walk begins at Glasgow Green with Mighty Striders ending 23-miles away in Balloch. To ensure there’s a walk for all ages and abilities, there’s also the 14-mile Big Stroll and the six-mile Wee Wander to choose from. The Kiltwalk then heads to Aberdeen on 3 June, with St Andrews to Dundee on 19 August, and lastly takes to the streets of Edinburgh on Sunday 16 September. Visit: www.thekiltwalk.co.uk
WHAT THEY SAID
Scotland captain John Barclay on Finn Russell’s form –
“He has had some game when he has not played as well as he could. He typically bounces back. I have seen him not play his best game then bounce back and win man-of-the-match. Finn is one of the best stand-offs in the world in my opinion, based on how he played in the autumn games and the summer tour.
He maybe has not had his best first two games but he has done some good things. The scrutiny is always huge on the number ten and the nature of the beast is that the negatives are being pointed out more than the positives just now.
Finn thrives on pressure. He loves that element of the game. He has trained really well and is relishing this weekend. He is very relaxed but that should not be mistaken for not taking the game seriously. He is as disappointed as anyone if the team does not play well or if he does not play well.
He is one of the guys on the laptops the most doing analysis. He’s that guy driving the team. His personality is not going to change.That makes him play the way he does.”
England assistant coach Steve Borthwick on team culture –
We are all the sums of our experiences. The squad went to a charity dinner last week and I observed the players interacting at the dinner after training against Georgia. The interactions that the players had were fantastic – exceptional. I remember thinking there and then how much these guys value and respect how this game can help people and what this game can do.If the players earn a victory then we acknowledge it in the changing rooms – then very quickly Dylan will talk about what we need to do next and how we can improve. I see a group of players who respect the values of this game and are very privileged to be involved in it.They compete as hard as they possibly can, as fair as they can and always respect the game and the opposition. And I think they have always done that.
Scotland forwards coach Dan McFarland on whether it is a gamble to bring WP New straight back into the squad after three months out –
“‘He’s demonstrated a number of things. You don’t gamble on selections like that. He’s been working back to playing levels with his club and we’ve been monitoring him. Since he’s been in the squad, last week as well as this week, he’s trained really, really well.
“In terms of his scrummaging, we had a bit of a marker when he went on tour in the summer. He had done relatively little scrummaging prior to playing against Italy but was excellent in that game, so we are really confident that WP is in a position to play well.
“He would be right up there [as one of the best tight-head McFraland has worked with]. For a man who doesn’t carry a huge amount of ballast, you have to be clever in what you do. He is extremely clever and can be a destructive scrummager, as well as a solid one. He is excellent to work with and very proud to represent this country, I can tell you that.
“Every week, you’re trying to prove a point. They [England] will offer different threats to France, different threat to Wales at scrum time. They have a stated intent to be the No. 1 scrum in the world. They got to train against Georgia last week and apparently have had brilliant preparations, so they will be coming full of confidence. We understand that it’s a big task – but it’s one we relish.
‘The lads will want to test themselves against England’s scrum, definitely.”
England flanker Chris Robshaw on playing away from home –
“It’s great at home when you have 82,000 cheering you on and that makes it a bit easier. But away from home, you have pockets of fans here and there and it brings you closer together as a unit. It’s you against everyone there and you’re going right into the heart of the fire. It’s the 15 or 23 plus the coaches against everyone there and it really forms that camaraderie.When you’re defending and defending and come out the other side it makes you grow another inch. That’s why I think going away from home is always an exciting prospect. Going to those hostile environments as a player – that is where you enjoy challenging yourself.
“It was scary. I didn’t know what was going on. My five-year-old ran through and said: ‘It wasn’t me dad’. The whole house was shaking for about 10 seconds. I found out a lot about myself. I was standing in the doorway – every man for himself.“I’ve survived the earthquake so I should be okay this weekend.”
THREE KEY CLASHES
Peter Horne versus Owen Farrell
The Scotsman was not selected for the first match of the championship but made an immediate impression as a late replacement when he scuttled over for that consolation score against Wales, which ensured his side avoided the indignity of being nilled.
With Finn Russell misfiring in Cardiff, Horne was brought into the starting fifteen against France to provide a bit of clear thinking in midfield, and he provided that with a far more measured all-round display from the Scottish backs the outcome.
Horne likes to throw the ball about as much as any other player in this precocious Scottish back-line, but perhaps has a better appreciation of when it is on and when it is time to play the percentages. But it is in defence where Horne is going to be really under pressure, because he is up against the man who makes England.
We saw last year that it takes a bit more than simply getting in Farrell’s face to put him off his game – in fact he revels in being put under pressure, so Horne and his team-mates will have to be smart as well as aggressive in their endeavours to keep the English fulcrum in check.
Simon Berghan v Mako Vunipola
Berghan returned from a six week suspension to play perhaps the best game of his career against France a fortnight ago, with a solid set-piece performance complemented by a high work-rate around the park. Physically, he has all the attributes to be an excellent scrum anchor for Scotland but it took him over three years to establish himself as a front-line player at club and international level – and when he did it was almost by default due to injuries to WP Nel – because he has had a tendency to ease off at key moments. But his coaches at club and international level believe that he has now developed a tough, more ruthless edge, which he will need against an England pack which is expected to target Scotland’s scrum this afternoon.
The visiting team’s scrum coach Neal Hatley has already thrown a firecracker into the air hoping that someone – ideally referee Nigel Owens will notice – by stating of Berghan: “If he’s got a tendency to drop you’ve got to force him on to his knees to make it clear for the ref. If he picks it up he picks it up.”
England’s forwards scrummaged against the formidable Georgians during last week’s fallow period, and were pleased with how it went.
Jonny Gray v Joe Launchbury
Both players regularly register outstanding stats for their respective teams in terms of tackles made, rucks hits, hard yards carried, etc. Two dogs of war who will have big roles to play in setting the tone of this match.
SCOTLAND’S RECORD AGAINST ENGLAND
Played 135 – Won 42 – Drawn 18 – Lost 75
15 February 1986: Scotland 33 England 6
3 March 2001: England 43 Scotland 3
11 March 2017: England 61 Scotland 21
Six most recent matches
4 February 2012: Scotland 6 England 13
2 February 2013: England 38 Scotland 18
8 February 2014: Scotland 0 England 20
14 March 2015: England 25 Scotland 13
6 February 2016: Scotland 9 England 15
11 March 2017: England 61 Scotland 21
LAST TIME OUT
IN the corresponding fixture last year, Scotland travelled south to take on England bolstered by thrilling wins at Murrayfield over Ireland and Wales during rounds one and three of the championship, and an expectant nation fully anticipated a first win at Twickenham since 1883 – which made the 61-21 hammering handed out by Eddie Jones’ side even harder to swallow than it needed to be. Injuries played their part in that defeat but that the real issue was the visiting team’s inability to cope with the home side’s pace and precision.
It started terribly for the Scots, with Fraser Brown being shown a yellow-card in the second minute for a late tip-tackle on Elliot Daly, and Jamie Joseph got the first of his three tries almost immediately after that. From then on, it was one way traffic, with England’s clever running angles of quick set-piece ball cutting the visiting team’s midfield defence to ribbons. By the end of the match, the try count was seven-three in the home teams favour, while Owen Farrell had kicked four penalties to Scotland’s none.
The mood north of the border has been rather more mooted during the build-up to this encounter, largely due to the team’s rather pedestrian performances (by recent standards) during the opening two rounds of the championship, but mainly because that chastising experience at Twickenham has ensured that the all-round excellence of England is not going to underestimated again.
There has been two personnel changes and one positional switch in the England pack since the last time the two sides met. Mako Vunipola, who was on the bench 11 months ago, swaps in for Joe Marler and Chris Robshaw starts at open-side instead of James Haskell, while Maro Itoje and Courney Lawes swap the number six and the number five jerseys.
Scotland, who have lost Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson and Richie Gray from the pack which played at Twickenham, face a huge challenge keeping the English juggernaut in check this time round – but the real battle could be in midfield, where George Ford, Farrell and Joseph will look to carry on from where they left off at the end of the last Calcutta Cup match.
Scotland are still without Alex Dunbar – their defence leader last season – so Pete Horne has a chance to show that he is more than just a tidy ball player in his match-up against Farrell.
Tommy Seymour is the only winger on either team to have started last year’s match.