It takes a rare weekend of rugby to see the Calcutta Cup overshadowed, but that is the situation England and Scotland will encounter on Saturday, with Wales vs Ireland kicking off a few hours earlier and a title and a Grand Slam on the line for Warren Gatland and his charges.
Should Wales lose and the door remains open for England to potentially wrap up the Guinness Six Nations title at Twickenham, there will no doubt be an extra edge to the game, but regardless, fixtures between these two age-old rivals are never dull affairs.
Scotland, meanwhile, have not won at Twickenham since 1983 and are currently suffering through a significant injury crisis. Their last trip to the home of English rugby saw them succumb to a 61-21 loss, but the visitors on Saturday do currently hold the Cup, having beaten England, 25-13, at Murrayfield last season.
Eddie Jones’ recent history against Scotland has not been a pleasant one, with that loss at Murrayfield last year exacerbated by abuse he received from four Scotland fans following the game. The Australian has not been afraid of tapping into that pool of disappointment for motivation this week, insisting his team are out for revenge, both for the result and for the “taunts” from Scotland’s players.
As for Gregor Townsend, the former Scotland international has a 100% record against England and Jones as a coach, with his sole game against the pair coming last year at Murrayfield, with the 40-point deficit at Twickenham in 2017 occurring a couple of months before his appointment. With Scotland down to the barebones at a number of positions, Townsend will have his work cut out maintaining that record on Saturday evening.
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Watch: Eddie Jones is aiming to settle scores with Scotland this weekend
Ellis Genge went well for England in his start against Italy and there will be pressure on Moon to respond against Scotland, as both players vie to be the backup to Mako Vunipola. Moon is arguably better equipped for the scrum battle that Nel will be keen to excel in, but won’t offer the ball-carrying option that Genge does. If Moon can tire and negate the impact of Nel, Genge could be poised for a strong cameo from the bench.
Nel will be hoping that any English goals of nullifying him are overly ambitious and that he can help give Scotland a strong set-piece foundation. Alongside Stuart McInally, Nel has bolstered the Scottish set-piece in recent years and the days of them being bullied in the scrum and the lineout, even on the road, are long gone. This looks to be a fascinating contest between two of the better pure scrummagers in the international game.
Obviously, there is a significant breakdown battle component to this match-up, with Watson more than capable of disrupting England’s previously stellar ball-security. Wilson will have his work cut out getting from ruck to ruck and playing his role in ensuring that Watson is not given any free shots at stealing ball.
The contest will extend beyond the contact area, though, and both flankers have shown themselves to be dangerous ball-carriers when given the opportunity. How they match up in terms of giving their respective teams front-foot ball and denying their opponents any forward momentum, could well be a decisive factor in the final result.
Both Farrell and Russell have impressed during the tournament, albeit with Farrell being put into a more conducive scenario to succeed. Away from the Wales game, which was uncharacteristically poor from the Saracens fly-half, Farrell has been instrumental in delivering three bonus point wins for England and his control and kicking game, particularly against Ireland and France, was exceptional.
Arguably, Scotland have asked more of Russell. With their plethora of injuries and eagerness to play from all areas of the pitch, there has been a lot of pressure on Russell’s decision-making and his ability to execute. Sometimes it has worked to the benefit of Scotland, but at other times it has cost them. From his spot at 10 to Townsend’s as coach, Scotland have a live and die by the sword mentality and whilst the odds are stacked against them on Saturday, it is something which could help them spring an upset.
Tuilagi enjoyed his best game of the championship at 13 last week against Italy, but he shifts back inside to 12 this week, with Henry Slade coming back into the XV at outside centre. Whether he will look to shift with Slade and have the Exeter man step in as a second receiver outside of Farrell remains to be seen, but you know that he will pose a potent carrying threat to the Scottish defensive line, regardless of where he positions himself on the field.
It is a tough task for Johnson, to try and contain Tuilagi, but one of his best hopes will be getting up in the English centre’s face fast and early, and not allowing him to build up any momentum. From an attacking standpoint, Johnson will have enjoyed seeing how narrowly England defended against Italy, but with Tuilagi moved inside and Slade at 13, turning the corner is unlikely to be as easy for Scotland as it was for the Azzurri.
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Watch: Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend looks ahead to England game
A really intriguing match-up, between two players that punch above their respective weights and heights. They are both quick and agile wings with good footwork, and their work rate, both chasing kicks and looking for extra involvements in the midfield, give them added value beyond their physical attributes.
With England likely to go to a heavy kicking option once again, Graham’s positioning will be under the microscope, whilst May’s ability to chase and compete for the kick will be key to England’s hopes of success. Aerially, there is not too much between them, but May’s added experience could come in handy as he seeks to reaffirm his case for being a regular in the England XV.
Only Ireland have carried the ball more than Scotland so far in the Six Nations and for Townsend’s side to have any hope of success at Twickenham, they will need to make sure their ball-security is functioning well. Their proclivity to run the ball from deep and keep it in hand can have a number of positive effects on the pitch, but it will require them to keep Tom Curry quiet.
If England opt to keep people out of the ruck as they did against Italy, then Scotland’s job will be made easier, but given the emphasis Scotland put on stringing together a number of phases, expect England to compete more aggressively there this weekend. Conversely, England’s ball-security has been excellent so far this tournament and Watson will have to work hard to get joy there on Saturday.
Back three and kicking game
England went to the boot prodigiously against Ireland, France and Wales, before changing tact against Italy. With Scotland missing Stuart Hogg, Blair Kinghorn and Tommy Seymour in the back three, the hosts could well feel like there is an opportunity to exploit space and unfamiliarity among the visitors in the kicking game.
As touched on earlier, Scotland will have to pick their poison, either getting up early in the faces of the English attack and aggressively hoping to deny them momentum, which in turn will create space in behind, or to defend more conservatively and try to keep numbers on their feet in the defensive line. The flip side of this is that both May and Jack Nowell do enjoy coming off their wings looking for work, so if Scotland can force turnovers, there may well be space on the transition.
There is a scenario whereby Wales secure the Grand Slam in Cardiff just prior to kick-off and England subconsciously lose some of the fire or determination they were taking into the game, and Scotland manage to catch them cold. A couple of early Scottish tries if England lack focus and then Townsend’s side could have the momentum to see the game out from a winning position.
That said, England have shown a habit of starting fast this year and even news that the Six Nations title is beyond them is unlikely to throw them off too much. The pride and importance of the Calcutta Cup should be enough to focus them, irrespective of larger title concerns.
England have form, health and home advantage all on their side and whilst there have been times in the last 36 years where Scotland have come to Twickenham full of confidence and in with a realistic shot at ending their south-west London drought, this doesn’t feel like one. Maybe that makes it even more of a banana skin for England.
England by 17.
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