IF 1984 was George Orwell’s classic horror story of a dystopian future, then 1983 is Scottish rugby’s very own reminder of their miserable past. To put Scotland’s dismal record in London in some sort of perspective, since their last win in 1983 Ireland have won five Championship matches at Twickenham and Wales have won four … plus another at Wembley in 1999, oh, and one more at Twickenham during RWC’15.
So with that history you’d imagine that the visitors would be no-hopers for this match – but Scotland were 6-1 before the team announcements and 9-2 after it. They are not exactly favourites, but neither are they the rank outsiders you might expect in the circumstances. There is a palpable sense of anticipation growing in tartan ranks ahead of this game; a warning sign if ever there was.
Scotland will likely win at Twickenham when it is least expected. England will be on their guard today, firstly following the high jinks of 2019’s crazy contest and, again, after almost losing to a scratch French team last time out.
At least some of the reason that the odds on the Scots are shortening is that this England team remain relentless underperformers on Eddie Jones’ watch.
If a coach’s job is to cajole his players into unearthing the collective best of themselves come kick off then the little Aussie has failed spectacularly. We watched dumbfounded at the heights this England team could reach in the 2019 World Cup semi-final when they systematically dismantled the All Blacks with fast, furious rugby that was as clinical as it was physical.
England have not come remotely close to repeating that performance since and Scottish fans will hope that stays true a little longer.
England are a tad vulnerable and Jones’ loud squawking only confirms as much. The Saracens contingent are short a gallop and come kick-off the home team will be missing five forwards and 80,000 very vocal supporters. It is difficult to quantify the difference an empty Twickenham will make except to say that it will take a toll.
The missing players include ball-carrying props Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola, plus the gain-line specialist Manu Tuilagi. That is a lot of ball-carrying ability England have lost and it is one of the reasons Jones has opted for Six Nations rookie Ollie Lawrence at inside centre with Owen Farrell returned to fly-half. Lawrence is a powerful operator who plays 13 for Worcester but has the short, stocky look of Ma’a Nonu about him.
England’s selection gives us a clue how they want to play and it looks like standard stuff from the men in white. Farrell sees fewer options than George Ford at ten so we can expect the home half-backs to kick for position with Lawrence on hand to win gain-line before risking the outside backs when the Scots’ defence is bent out of shape.
So too Scotland’s selection offers a clue to Townsend’s thought process.
The head coach famously abandoned his “fastest rugby” following that disastrous RWC’19 campaign but he has yet to come up with a ready-made replacement.
Last season Scotland tightened the nuts and bolts of their set piece and their defence, both much improved, but the attack flopped and Townsend surely knows that his squad lacks the personnel to win an arm-wrestle against the best in Europe, at least on a regular basis. He must find a halfway house between “fastest rugby” and the set-piece squeeze (slowest rugby?) Scotland showcased in the last Six Nations.
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Most of the Scottish threats come from 9-15, especially Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, so the backs need quick ball and the freedom to attack from anywhere on the park if the opportunity arises. An unstructured game still suits the Scots more than the hosts but the visitors’ problem at RWC’19 was going wide before getting onto the front foot and it isn’t obvious who will provide the go-forward against England’s big beasts. Scotland are short of ball-carriers.
Cameron Redpath is a bold choice at 12. He is undoubtedly a classy player; several English columnists have rued his loss. Townsend may be short on options but there seems little point in playing a second playmaker at 12 because Russell will call all the shots at ten regardless.
It would be interesting to see Redpath swap places with Chris Harris on occasion. Not only would it paint a different picture for the English defence, it would allow the hard running Harris to become the gain-line specialist that the Scottish backline is missing and afford Redpath a little more time and space.
While much of England’s attention will inevitably focus on the Russell/Redpath midfield axis, the secret to Scotland’s success on Saturday may instead lie with scrum-half Ali Price.
He was a brilliant running nine when he first broke into the national squad back in 2016 but since then the little scrummy has occasionally looked like he is painting by numbers, box- kicking relentlessly like a poor man’s Conor Murray.
Price needs to shake off the shackles, snipe around the fringes and inject pace into the game; just look what the electric Harry Randall has done for Bristol Bears this season. Scotland won’t win without taking a few risks.
A running threat from Price not only is a danger in itself but it takes some of the heat off the Russell/Redpath midfield. If the nine is threatening the inside channels, especially with Duhan van der Merwe lurking on his shoulder, the defence will hesitate to blitz the ten/twelve channel and nanoseconds are the margins that separate success from failure at this level.
There are several scenarios that foresee a Scotland triumph on Saturday but there are rather more in favour of the home team.
The Scots rarely put together the complete game, one wheel almost always falls off the wagon. In Dublin it was discipline and defence that disintegrated. The Scots conceded 15 penalties when losing to Ireland (10 pens) and three tries either side of half time.
They will almost certainly finish second if they do the same at Twickenham because Farrell is unlikely to miss four penalties again, as happened against France.
Meanwhile, England will have noted the ease with which Cian Healy bulldozed over from short range on 43 minutes. Defending the try-line is Scotland’s Achilles heel and England’s big men will probe it relentlessly.
Which is why I would have preferred Gary Graham to start at No 8. He is the sort of gnarly, competitive animal that every Test team needs and would probably relish the chance to start against an England squad he was, briefly, a member of.
Without him, the Scottish back-row trio of Jamie Richie, Hamish Watson and Matt Fagerson are dangerously lightweight in the contact zone, which means the vast bulk of the brutal business of defending the try line falls on the front five.
And in that front five I would have opted for rookie David Cherry to start at hooker ahead of George Turner, whose ill-discipline continues to be a problem. (So the perfect replacement for Fraser Brown, some might say). Cherry is the beefier of the two Scotland hookers, more effective in the set scrum and accurate at the sidelines. He is sure to show off the bench.
The 150th-anniversary match adds some spice to this Calcutta Cup challenge and the Scots are in a better place than their last outing, that 31-16 defeat in Dublin, suggests. But in a game of small margins, England hold a crucial edge in several key aspects including experience, with 618 caps in the starting XV compared to Scotland’s 449.
The accumulation of several small advantages should be enough to see the home team over the line.
Yet another home win then, but far from an easy one.