Who is it Scotland fear most as they prepare for their win-or-bust game with England this weekend? Jonny Wilkinson perhaps? Nope. Having twice given the great red-rose goalkicker the heebie-jeebies in the recent past – Wilkinson was dropped by Brian Ashton after the Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield in 2008, and again by Martin Johnson after a similarly fraught episode last year – they believe they can deal with him. How about Ben Youngs? Not quite. Strong at half-back themselves, the Scots are losing little sleep over the threat from No 9.
Try Courtney Lawes, Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton instead. All three are relative newcomers to Test rugby, but each has left a mark: Ashton on the scoreboard, with 14 tries in 16 outings; the other two on those opponents who have had the misfortune to enter their orbit at the wrong moment.
Andy Robinson, the head coach of Scotland, believes Lawes could become one of English rugby's fabled figures. "He times his tackles so beautifully and he hits so hard," an admiring Robinson remarked yesterday. As for the two backs, the defence strategist Graham Steadman – another Englishman buried deep in the Scottish system – has his views. As a professional 13-a-sider who came to the union code after successful playing and coaching careers with Castleford and Great Britain, he first picked up on Ashton during the wing's early league days in the Wigan academy and feels he understands the things that make him tick. Tuilagi is a more recent interest, but Steadman is taking a crash-course on the subject.
"Ashton was always a talent: his rugby comes naturally to him," Steadman said. "The way he's developed his game in union is a credit both to him and to the England set-up, and he's firing on all cylinders at the moment. Confidence is a big thing with him, though: when we played England at Twickenham last March there were certain aspects to his game we felt we could nullify. Nothing's changed. Tuilagi? We'll pay him some attention. He's still a little raw but he backs himself, and he's a threat when he's given quick ball and gets up a head of steam. We'll need to be on top of him.
"But we've highlighted a number of areas and we feel we can be direct against them. I'm not being disrespectful to the Romanians, but England won't find that sort of space against us."