FORTUNE favours the brave, or so one theory goes – but will Gregor Townsend’s decision to name Huw Jones in his Scotland starting XV for the first time since Italy in March 2021 prove a masterstroke or an exercise in rugby masochism?
On his day, the Glasgow Warriors centre is an irresistible force who runs magnificent lines with pace and purpose to break open even the most miserly of defences, with his performance against England at Murrayfield in that 2018 victory a fond and enduring memory for all Scots who witnessed it.
With the zippy Ben White loading the bullets, and Townsend publicly encouraging Russell to showcase his full array of passing and kicking skills, the plan seems to be something close to all-out attack, to test an England team looking to find their feet under a new coach, having managed just one win in this fixture in the last five years and who have just four wins from their last 10 Six Nations games.
However, questions around Jones’ defence have pursued the now 29-year-old throughout his career, with his revolving door routine against England at Twickenham in 2017 and a couple of costly missed tackles which led directly to tries for Wales during the 2018 Six Nations among the most damning entries on the charge sheet.
Townsend’s desire for a more defensively robust squad ultimately led to Jones missing out on the 2019 World Cup in France – look how that turned out! – and this slight on Jones’ reputation has stuck, perhaps unfairly
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a bad defender,” said the man himself a few years ago. “I think there have been times obviously when I have missed tackles in games. It happens to everyone and some of mine have been in open field where there is an easy run to the try line. That obviously looks pretty bad but other ones have been system errors where I have been left out in the cold.”
After a season getting much-needed regular game-time in the English Premiership with Harlequins, Jones believes he has returned to Scotland a more rounded player, and the early evidence supports this, but he has managed just four appearances for Warriors since returning north last summer (due to a back injury and squad rotation) so this selection is a roll of the dice.
Three of those four games have been at 12 with Sione Tuipulotu at 13. The ‘Huwipulotu’ combination has been switched around for this step-up from club to international level, although the midfield pairing is, of course, interchangeable.
England under Steve Borthwick – six and a half weeks into the job – will play a simplified brand of rugby after the muddled thinking of the end of the Eddie Jones era. Attack coach Nick Evans’ mantra is ‘LQB’ – lightning quick ball – and the selection of twin playmakers in Marcus Smith at 10 and Owen Farrell at 12 will test Jones and Tuipulotu’s reading of the game and their ability to think on their feet.
Of course, if it all goes wrong, then defensive bulwark Chris Harris is waiting in the wings – which makes sense, so long as the horse has not already bolted by the time the Gloucester man trots off the bench.
With Jack van Poortvliet – a Leicester Tiger under Borthwick – at scrum-half, and an imposing back three built physically and psychologically to chase high-balls (full-back Freddy Steward is 6ft 5ins, Ollie Hassell-Collins making his debut on the left wing if 6ft 4ins and the elfin Max Malins on the right wing is a mere 5ft 11ins) , we can safely say that an aerial bombardment will be part of England’s battleplan today.
Townsend must have been tempted to pick the old warhorse Sean Maitland, who is his best available winger in the air. He’s gone for Kyle Steyn, who is solid in this area and in fine form for Glasgow, instead. Meanwhile, Duhan van der Merwe is big and enthusiastic and a handful chasing kicks, but isn’t anywhere near as commanding when on the receiving end.
Another priority for England under Borthwick will be sorting out a scrum which had lost its way, to turn it once again into an attacking weapon. Former Edinburgh boss Richard Cockerill, as the only coaching survivor from the Jones era (he is expected to move on, reportedly to Montpellier, after the tournament), is overseeing that task, and was typically blunt on the subject during Friday’s eve-of-match press conference.
“Certainly, from my point of view, our set-piece has to be a lot better,” he said. “Our scrum hasn’t been good enough and that’s something we need to improve, both in terms of the relationships with the referee and how we actually go about our business. We know that’s going to be a big test tomorrow because Pierre Schoeman, George Turner and WP Nel are a quality front-row. Our set-piece parts have to be a lot better if we’re going to compete at this level and win games at this level.”
When asked if Nel – the 36-year-old wearing No 3 because Zander Fagerson hasn’t recovered in time from a hamstring tear at the start of December – is the weak link, Cockerill retorted: “No, not at all. I’d probably class him in the same category as Dan Cole [the veteran Leicester tight-head who has been recalled to sit on the bench this afternoon] around his set-piece ability. We know that’s going to be a fierce part of the game and WP is a quality scrummager. We treat him with a huge amount of respect.”
The reality is that Nel is not the force he once was, either in the tight or around the park. He’s honest, and brave, and will never let Scotland down, but lacks punch and mobility. Simon Berghan is undercooked in terms of game-time with Glasgow, where he ended up because Cockerill really didn’t fancy him at Edinburgh, but the big New Zealander proved on his first cap off the bench away to France in tricky circumstances back in 2017 that when switched on he can hold his own at the highest level – although you would have hoped he’d have kicked on a bit more by now.
Townsend has opted for an all-Glasgow replacement front-row with the logic being that this familiarity can help negate England’s power in the final quarter.
It’s a big day for Luke Crosbie at openside flanker. Tough as old boots, he will relish the opportunity to lay down a marker – such as he did when knocking England hooker Jamie George onto his backside and out of the game when Edinburgh got the better of Saracens at the DAM Health Stadium a fortnight ago.
Another emphatic declaration of intent from the East Lothian man would be handy to get the ball rolling this afternoon.
Today’s teams (kick-off 4.45pm):
England: F Steward; M Malins, J Marchant, O Farrell©, O Hassell-Collins; M Smith, J van Poortvliet; E Genge, J George, K Sinckler, M Itoje, O Chessum, L Ludlam, B Curry, A Dombrandt. Replacements: J Walker, M Vunipola, D Cole, N Isiekwe, B Earl, B Youngs, O Lawrence, A Watson.
Scotland: S Hogg; K Steyn, H Jones, S Tuipulotu, D van der Merwe; F Russell, B White; P Schoeman, G Turner, W Nel, R Gray, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie©, L Crosbie, M Fagerson. Replacements: F Brown, J Bhatti, S Berghan, J Gray, J Dempsey, G Horne, B Kinghorn, C Harris.