Eddie's right, England are underdogs - Andy Goode
It’s not the first time Eddie Jones has tried to tell us all that Scotland are favourites to win the Calcutta Cup but this time he’s right.
This is the most inexperienced team Jones has ever selected in the Six Nations, Scotland are far more settled in terms of their selection and they have had their hands on the cup in three of the last four years.
His quotes in the media are mind games, of course, and he’s talked up the expectation on Scotland in these clashes as far back as 2016 when they probably weren’t expected to win as he obviously think the favourites tag weighs heavy on them. This time he’s right, though.
They may not quite but “red-hot favourites” as Jones suggests but, whether you look at the number of caps in the pack or the experience in the back three or the number of British & Irish Lions in the starting XV, Scotland do have the slight edge.
Clearly, England have had to adjust with injuries to several frontline players but Jones should be credited again for changing his ways and paying far more attention to Premiership form than he used to.
Lewis Ludlam and Nick Isiekwe are prime examples of that. Both have been outstanding for their clubs but neither have featured prominently for England for some time, the latter last seen in an international jersey being taken off before half-time in the first Test of the summer tour to South Africa back in 2018.
It’s a huge day for them and I think the lack of experience in the back three, as well as in the back row, has influenced Jones’ selection in the midfield.
Mark Atkinson seemed like the obvious choice to many to be selected at centre because he’s most similar to Andre Esterhuizen, who is such a big help to Marcus Smith at Harlequins, but he has just one international cap to his name as a replacement against Tonga.
Elliot Daly has started just five games for Saracens this season and only one of those at centre, so he hasn’t been picked on form, but I think he’s got the nod because of the experience he brings when that is lacking in those around him.
Daly is one of five players in the starting XV with more caps to his name than captain Tom Curry but the Sale man is England’s leader because of all the unseen things that we aren’t privy to looking on from outside camp.
Who knows whether he will be skipper for England long-term but it’s a huge honour to have bestowed on him at the age of just 23 and there’s no higher praise than to have your coach liken you to Richie McCaw.
There are different types of captain and it remains to be seen how Curry handles it but he hasn’t been given it as a gimmick and I fully expect to see him leading England more in the future.
You don’t have to shout the odds all the time as a captain, you can lead by example and it’s certainly the case that some captains talk too much, but you do have to command respect when you do speak up and I’m sure Curry will do that.
He is by far the most experienced man in England’s back row and the selection of Sam Simmonds ahead of Alex Dombrandt is an interesting one. I thought they might both start alongside one another but it’s great to see the Exeter number eight given his chance.
It seemed like Dombrandt might have the edge because of his relationship with Smith but Simmonds has the first shot in this Six Nations and I’m sure we’ll see both starting throughout the tournament.
The back row battle is clearly going to be key and it was interesting to see World Rugby issuing a clarification about when the ball is out the back of a ruck at Eddie Jones’ request.
More mind games and an attempt to get inside the head of referee Ben O’Keeffe it might be but there’s every chance he’s also spotted something in Scotland’s game and I think the selection of Ludlam alongside Curry is to combat the threat of Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie at the breakdown.
All those decisions in the forwards and the outside backs are fascinating but the battle that everyone wants to see is Marcus Smith against Finn Russell at fly half.
I’m looking forward to it as much as anyone else but I think the conditions, with a fair bit of rain and wind forecast, will mean it might not be the mercurial ability of either that wins the game and it might be the one who manages the game best who comes out on top.
Make no bones about it though, Scotland are favourites, even if “red-hot” might be over-egging the pudding a bit, and it’ll be interesting to see how they react after having success going in as underdogs in recent years.
They do have the edge in a few areas but I think Jones might just have got his pre-match rhetoric right on this occasion and I’m picking England to relish the slight underdog tag and win by four points at Murrayfield.
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