Calcutta Cup preview: Scotland must play to their strengths to make superiority over England count

Visitors are a curate's egg but they have winning momentum which makes them dangerous

Jamie Ritchie carries the ball during Scotland's 2023 Calcutta Cup victory over England at Twickenham. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Jamie Ritchie carries the ball during Scotland's 2023 Calcutta Cup victory over England at Twickenham. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

I LIKE cliches. In an unpredictable world there is comfort in the expected. The French should have flair. Everything Wales do should revolve around their number 10 shirt. The Bokke should be brutal. England’s forward pack should be bullies. They always used to be, when England were good.

In their pomp, England fielded giant forwards who would chew you up and spit you out. When things got sticky someone called Deano, Johnno or Mooro would tuck the ball up their jumper and England’s hard men would grind their way up the field. The fly-half would kick to the corners and your goose would be three quarters cooked before you had figured out how to slow the juggernaut, never mind stop it.

England’s peak pack probably occurred in Wellington 2003, a few months ahead of that RWC win, when they defeated New Zealand in their own backyard for the first time in 30 years. A victory that included a six man England scrum holding out the All Blacks, with a full complement of forwards, on their own try line. With four re-sets.


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20 years on and times have changed. England lost that RWC’23 semi-final against South Africa because their reserve props, Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler, were not up to the task. Sinckler is still out in the cold, Genge a surprise starter on Saturday. England have forgotten what made them a force in world rugby, or perhaps they just don’t make ’em like they used to.

Between 1984-2020, Scotland failed to register a win at Twickenham. Now the Scots have held the Calcutta Cup for five of the last six years and, pinch yourself, our recent record against England is better at Twickenham than at Murrayfield, if only marginally. In the last six years, Scotland boasts two wins and a draw at Twickenham; two wins and a loss at Murrayfield. Little wonder England tried to sell HQ.

This England XV is a curate’s egg of a Test team, good in bits. Maro Itoje and Ollie Chessum have the makings of an excellent lock combo although I would have started the bruiser George Martin against the underpowered Scots’ pack. Ben Earl is dangerous at No 8 given his pace off the mark and Borthwick has picked tomorrow’s man in Ollie Lawrence rather than yesterday’s Man(u) Tuilagi.

Winger Tommy Freeman looks the part and, much to everyone’s surprise, the most conservative of coaches Borthwick has picked three ball players in George Furbank, scrummy Danny Care and Genge, over aerial specialist Freddie Steward, tactical kicker Ben Spencer and the scrummaging expert Joe Marler.

Perhaps the underdogs are coming to play some rugby!? You can just imagine the England management meeting as an early episode of Star Trek: “It’s so crazy Steve. It. Just. Might. Work!”

 

 

It would be counter to Borthwick’s ultra cautious approach, especially bold given England’s attack has yet to blossom with George Ford directing traffic 20 metres behind the gain-;ine.

In the opening two games, against the worst two teams in the tourney, England lost the try count five to four, while squeaking past Italy and Wales by a combined total of five points. This is not the stuff of dreams.

The one thing England has in their favour is the fact that they are on a winning streak. Admittedly the streak is only three games long but, well, baby steps and all that. More importantly, England has won eight of their last nine Tests. These numbers must boost confidence in the camp, which could be the magic missing ingredient? The Six Nations is all about momentum and England has the wind at their backs even if it’s a breeze rather than a blast.

England traveled to France RWC23 with low expectations and finished third after pushing the Springboks all the way. The fact that this team hasn’t played well so far does not mean that they won’t pull an ace from their sleeve come Saturday afternoon, although they still look like a side in a state of transition (to their supporters) or confusion (to everyone else).

Borthwick is no one’s idea of an inspirational leader but he is trying to play a little more rugby than the England of old. He has picked ball players, Furbank the bolter’s bolter and in great form for Saints, but the coach probably hasn’t picked the one Saint he needs if England really do want to take the game to Scotland.

Finn versus Fin (Russell v Smith) would be box office gold, the sort of match up that might convert a few agnostics, but the fans on Saturday will have to make do with Finn v Ford and you’d back the Scot all day long provided he displays a little more of his habitual swagger/ambition/imagination when England hoists the ball his way.

 

 

If England are in transition, they at least have the excuse of a (relatively) new coach. What is Scotland’s explanation?

After the fiasco of the “fastest rugby on earth”, Townsend’s team is now playing the dullest rugby on earth. Two Scots sit atop the kicking stats, Ben White and Russell, with 73 between them. (For comparison, Ford and Alex Mitchell boast a combined kick total of 36).

Why are Scotland’s half-backs kicking twice as much as England’s when almost all of the dark blue threats stand in the wider channels? Eight years into the gig and Townsend still doesn’t have a coherent gameplan, which is worrying.

I understand everyone kicks, presses and hopes to milk a mistake 50 metres ‘downtown’ but surely Scotland has better attacking threats than most and surely Scotland can make them stick at some point. Russell chanced his arm in Cardiff and Duhan did alright.

If it is wet and wild this afternoon, England has a fighting chance against a middleweight Scottish pack, and that chance grows arms and legs the longer the score stays tight.

If it stays dry and the match opens up early on, Scotland boasts Russell at 10 and too many game breakers outside him to let this one slip.

Scotland are a score and a half better than England, ten points say, with the usual caveats; they need to produce something like their best performance on the day, they need to keep 15 players on the field and they need to play for 80 minutes rather than the 50-60 they have managed thus far.

Scotland has won the last three Tests against England. They haven’t won four championship games on the bounce against England since the 1890s. Both teams will be desperate to make, or avoid, a little bit of history.

And whatever the final score, I hope that Jamie George and Kyle Steyn share a beer after the event and talk about the cycle of life that pays no heed to sporting fixtures. We can only hope that the England skipper, who just lost his mum Jane, is able to take a crumb of comfort from the recent birth of Steyn’s new daughter Arabella.


U20s 6N: slow starting Scotland lose again against England

About Iain Morrison 143 Articles
Iain was capped 15 times for Scotland at openside flanker between his debut against Ireland during the 1993 Six Nations and his final match against New Zealand at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. He was twice a Cambridge ‘Blue’ and played his entire club career with London Scottish (being inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2016). Iain is a lifelong member of Linlithgow Rugby Club. After hanging up his boots, he became rugby correspondent for The Sunday Herald, before moving to The Scotland on Sunday for 16 years, and he has also guest written for various other publications.

9 Comments

  1. Who’d have thought Scotland would’ve kicked twice as much as England after two games. Still, if it works today and again against Italy then bring it on.
    Come on you floo’ers.

  2. I am a little surprised at how we are approaching this 6Nations tournament. It isn’t quite rugby by numbers that we saw from Glasgow under Danny Wilson, but it is definitely safety first. It will be fascinating to see what other lessons have been learned since the world cup in dealing with the blitz.

    There are enough issues to make me a bit worried about this one. Partly because I am old enough to have seen some right batterings from England, but we’ve not looked completely convincing so far either.

  3. “Townsend’s team is now playing the dullest rugby on earth”, and part of that is picking a scrum-half whose strengths are kicking and “game management” (ie. not playing what’s in front of you). Horne’s zippy service would give Finn an extra second in the face of England’s blitz and his support play is second to none. The first time White is caught at the rear of the scrum or ruck, he needs to be subbed.

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