Burden of history confronts England

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: Scottish nation poised for its team to right past slights and win the Grand Slam
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Rugby Union

STEVE BALE

reports from Edinburgh

To be an England rugby player here in Scotland just now is to appreciate the weight of a history that has nothing to do with a 125-year-old rugby rivalry and not that much to do either with the Scots' brave tilt at a fourth Grand Slam. Rather, we are talking about the baggage of centuries.

Insensitive as it may seem to say so, this afternoon's climactic Five Nations match between Rob Wainwright's and Will Carling's teams can quite clearly be seen as the modern, marginally more benign equivalent of Charles Edward Stuart and the Duke of Cumberland. Why, no sooner had I boarded my taxi yesterday than the driver was going on about 1745.

"I think it will make the Scottish nation very happy if we win," Wainwright understated. "But I'm not sure if there are any political implications." This is an appropriately diplomatic line from an officer (and doctor) in the British army but he has to be kidding.

Now that he is here, Jack Rowell really knows what he means when he laments how difficult such matches - "They're about more than rugby" is one of the manager's repeated lines - are for England. Not so much international matches as international incidents, they can be made to make up for the slights, real or imagined, of the ages.

So it is undeniably tense in Edinburgh and England's prospects depend on how creatively they use that tension. This has been the difference between their play and that of Scotland this season. The Scots have flourished specifically by playing rugby on the very edge, where the risks are greatest: the English have been absolutely unable to move beyond the mundane even when the risks are lowest.

With the recall of Dean Richards, the risks become lower still and, whether the world's most-capped No 8 knows it or not, he has in effect been handed personal responsibility for making England perform coherently and as a team.

Not that one Englishman can possibly hold England's fate even in hands as large as Richards', since this season's shortcomings have been general as well as specific. Man for man, a persuasive case could be stated in favour of most of the England players over their Scottish counterparts but the axiom about the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts can be applied only to the Scots.

That said, Jim Telfer declines to accept the notion that his team's victories over Ireland, France and Wales should make them favourites, the cryptic Scottish manager preferring to concentrate on Scotland's six consecutive defeats by England since 1990. It is a ploy: the main task this week for Richard Cox, the Scots' team psychologist, has been not to build the players up but to deal with the phenomenal anticipation of their own populace.

England have also summoned their "Shrink", as they call him, to Edinburgh, though Austin Swain's role has to be more about dispelling anxiety. Anyway, the only psychology Dean Richards needs is the sight of a dark-blue jersey: injured at the time of the 1990 Grand Slam misadventure, he has never lost to the Scots.

If England perform collectively in accordance with their individual abilities, it is safe to predict Richards will extend his run to seven matches - and, given his apparent influence on others as well as his own contribution, it is a more likely eventuality than it would have been without him. But it will remain a heavy conditional until we see evidence that the English players' diminished confidence is at last returning.

Indeed, if Richards is to be the man to effect this change, England will have to hope they find a way to decelerate the Scots, because not withstanding his renewed status as rugby superman the pack leader's impact on a game can be decisively reduced when the opposition succeed in pulling England all over the field.

This was demonstrated not only by the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand that caused Richards' subsequent exclusion but also by a less well-remembered antipodean Test, against Australia in Sydney in 1991, when England had also been done for pace. Remarkably, it was the last time Richards had been on a losing England side before that All Blacks match.

So Richards, and by extension England, are bound to struggle if Scotland gain an exploitable share of possession, and that in turn places the onus on Garath Archer, the new England lock, to secure the steady supply the discarded Martin Bayfield failed to secure against France and Wales. However prodigious Archer's talent, it is asking a lot, quite possibly too much.

Especially, that is, when you are confronted on your debut not only with 15 opponents nor even the vast majority among 67,000 spectators. The Bruce, the latest Scottish blockbuster with an anti-English theme, premiered in Aberdeen last night and comes to Edinburgh tonight, and Scots would like to see it as a perfectly timed metaphor for Murrayfield. It was Robert the Bruce who fought the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and Scotland got a result in that one, too.

SCOTLAND v ENGLAND

at Murrayfield

R Shepherd Melrose 15 M Catt Bath

C Joiner Melrose 14 J Sleightholme Bath

S Hastings Watsonians 13 W Carling Harlequins, capt

I Jardine Stirling County 12 J Guscott Bath

M Dods Northampton 11 R Underwood Leicester

G Townsend Northampton 10 P Grayson Northampton

B Redpath Melrose 9 M Dawson Northampton

D Hilton Bath 1 G Rowntree Leicester

K McKenzie Stirling County 2 M Regan Bristol

P Wright Boroughmuir 3 J Leonard Harlequins

S Campbell Dundee HSFP 4 M Johnson Leicester

G Weir Newcastle 5 G Archer Bristol

R Wainwright Watsonians, capt 6 B Clarke Bath

E Peters Bath 8 D Richards Leicester

I Smith Gloucester 7 L Dallaglio Wasps

Referee: D Bevan (Wales). Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC1)

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