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Handbrake attacks, Faz vs Finn, Redpath's defection and the maturing of Beno... the build-up to England vs Scotland

By Liam Heagney

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Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash featuring England versus Scotland is the standout game of the 2021 Guinness Six Nations championship’s opening round of matches this weekend. Last time they met at Twickenham they served up an all-time classic, a 38-all draw in March 2019 in which the Scots went 0-31 behind before going ahead and then getting pegged level by George Ford’s converted try.

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Similar high-scoring fireworks are not expected this time around. High scores usually come in March when the weather improves and the Six Nations teams are way more in sync with what they are trying to do. 

Cohesion is way more difficult at the start of February but that reality doesn’t dilute the intrigue of an encounter which marks the 150th commemoration of the first game between the two sides in 1871, a match watched by 4,000 more people than the zero attendance that will be at Twickenham for this behind closed doors England-Scotland meeting. 

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Jonny Wilkinson and Gregor Townsend guest on RugbyPass All Access ahead of the Calcutta Cup clash
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Jonny Wilkinson and Gregor Townsend guest on RugbyPass All Access ahead of the Calcutta Cup clash

With multiple subplots evident in the build-up to the latest meeting, RugbyPass takes a look at some of the key issues to watch out for: 

THE HANDBRAKE SCOTLAND ATTACK
Scotland were easy on the eye in 2019, as demonstrated in the second half of that year’s incredible fixture at Twickenham where they ran in brilliant tries from everywhere and anywhere. However, they were spooked by World Cup pool failure in Japan and have since drastically limited their style.

The evidence is laid bare by the 2020 Six Nations table, Scotland scoring just seven tries and 77 points, their lowest return since 2015 when they managed six tries and 73 points. This safety-first approach has naturally not gone undetected by Eddie Jones.

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“They went into the World Cup very focused on playing a running game, running the ball from everywhere, playing a lot of side-to-side rugby,” he highlighted recently. “They had a difficult World Cup and they have come back and played much more of the kicking game where they try to create a kicking contest and then try to play off that kicking contest.”

Townsend hasn’t ducked the issue entering the championship. Asked where Scotland most needed to improve, he replied: “It would be around the attack. You want to build on areas that are already strengths, defence and set-piece, and you what to build on areas that are very important to winning games. If you make more line breaks than the opposition you score more tries and you can win games.”

THE FAZ VERSUS FINN FACE-OFF
The head-to-head at No10 has been hyped as one to watch at Twickenham, but Jones has played down the significance of the threat posed by Finn Russell. “We understand he is a dangerous player… but we haven’t gone to any special lengths with Finn Russell in mind,” he chirped.    

Russell has had a busy winter in contrast to Farrell, playing 359 minutes for his club Racing across five matches at a time when his opposite number at Twickenham has been off his feet due to Saracens’ relegation.  

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Farrell, who struggled in his last outing against France before landing the extra-time winner, has been questioned about whether his lack of games might impact on his kicking accuracy, something he responded ‘no’ to. But it is interesting, too, how Russell hasn’t been on the tee at his club, Max Machenaud, Teddy Iberian and even Kurtley Beale instead slotting over recent kicks. 

One former Test level kicker is backing Farrell to eclipse Russell, ex-England full-back Jon Callard telling Rugby Tipster that what happened versus the French will help him now. “Owen missed a couple that for him are bread and butter but that happens to everyone. It’s how you bounce back. Owen did that with aplomb in that game so the advantage is with him.

“My trigger when it wasn’t going well for me, I’d always go back to the sound of foot-on-ball. I would try and put everything out of my mind and listen to that perfect pop sound when the boot just went through the ball. He probably did something like that and the outcome took care of itself,” reckoned Callard, the scorer of the last-gasp England penalty winner versus Scotland at Murrayfield in 1994.  

‘TRADITIONAL’ SLOW ENGLAND CHAMPIONSHIP STARTS
Three times champions during the Jones era, England have lost just six of their 25 Six Nations matches with the Australian in charge and just once at the start of the tournament, last year’s 17-24 setback in Paris against France. 

However, teams can be notoriously slow out of the blocks in February and England are usually no different. They were bullishly brilliant in 2019 when spanking Ireland in Dublin in round one but openers in 2016 and 2017 featured iffy round one wins over Scotland and France by respective seven- and three-point margins.   

This hints that Scotland should have a fighting chance of causing an upset given how it’s nearly always tough going trying to cram in preparation at this time of year. Jones has alluded to this hurdle, claiming: “We have tried to fit a pre-season of six weeks into ten days. That is the challenge for us. Trying to get all those cohesive parts of the attack, catch-pass, support lines, running lines all together in ten days. We’re a project in the making.”

WILL REDPATH DEFECTION HAUNT ENGLAND?
England coach Jones has breezily talked about the world and its mother in recent weeks, but the one topic that was clearly off-limits was the defection of midfield prospect Cameron Redpath to Scotland less than a year after he trained with Jones’ 2020 Six Nations squad.      

“I’m only here to talk about players that have been selected for England. I’m not here to talk about the Scotland squad,” he snapped when the delicate subject was broached some weeks ago. How devilish would it now be to see Redpath, chosen for a debut start at No12, become a thorn in Jones’ side by causing his team multiple problems at Twickenham? 

Adding a further layer of curiosity is how Redpath’s direct opponent will be Ollie Lawrence. Just 23 months ago the pair were partnered together in the England U20s midfield for a 45-7 hammering of Scotland at Franklin’s Gardens in which Redpath scored a try and Lawrence had one ruled out. Now they will be eyeballing each other across enemy lines, Lawerence earning his fourth Test cap and Redpath his first. 

Lawrence brings an extra 5kgs to the battle, tipping the scales at 100 compared to Redpath’s 95, and it will be fascinating to see if he is granted a licence to carry in this inside channel following previous outings at 13. Farrell in the No12 role made just 16 metres from four runs and seven from one run in England’s past two matches. 

FINISHERS SEEK THEIR ‘GENGE’ MOMENT  
Jones has suggested Saturday’s round one encounter will be decided by the ‘finishers’, the England boss claiming: “The history shows the game is usually won the last 20 minutes, so in a lot of respects our finishing team is more important than our starting team.”

A case in point was last year’s encounter where replacement Ellis Genge struck with the decisive 69th minute try in a storm-affected 13-6 win. If Jones’ prediction is correct, huge emphasis will be on how the respective benches influence the battle.

England’s reserves have an aggregate 219 caps to Scotland’s 140 and when you take out the most experience pair on both benches (England’s Courtney Lawes and George Ford, Scotland’s Richie Gray and Willem Nel), the contrast is 62 caps to 35 so trust is going to have to be placed in a huge level of inexperience.

Each bench has an uncapped payer as well, Scotland hooker David Cherry and England tighthead Beno Obano. There was much noise some years ago when Obano first broke on the scene but it has taken him a long time to convince Jones he is finally worth a shot in the absence of the injured Kyle Sinckler.

“It goes back to 2018 where he came as a young fella from Bath full of confidence, a bit of a rap expert,” said Jones. “Unfortunately he got injured in camp and it has been a long way back for him. I’m really pleased for him, how he has matured, how he has fought hard to get himself in great physical condition, how he has improved his game and it’s a great reward for him.”       

 

 

   

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Handbrake attacks, Faz vs Finn, Redpath's defection and the maturing of Beno... the build-up to England vs Scotland

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