England ready to slam the door

FIVE NATIONS SHOWDOWN: Scots have to produce a Parc des Princes level of performance to turn back the tide of history
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A curious courtship ritual has been going on for the past fortnight as England and Scotland have prepared themselves for this afternoon's Grand Slam match at Twickenham, each seeking to lull the other into a false sense of security.

No sooner had Scotland trounced Wales than English luminaries, Will Carling and Jack Rowell for starters, were falling over themselves to eulogise Gavin Hastings and his resurgent team. One might even call them resuscitated after their thrashing by South Africa.

Then the Scots realised their underdog status urgently needed emphasis, so they began to say much the same thing about England. There was Gordon Brown, not the shadow chancellor but a Scottish Lion of yore and now a "personality", on TV the other night saying that this was the finest England team he had ever seen.

As this was said in the hearing of the England hooker Brian Moore, appearing on the same programme, maybe he was not quite serious, though there is enough evidence of serious quality in this England team and of the improvement that can yet be made to indicate that they may indeed end up as fine as Brown says.

So, flush with flattery, they have circled each other for all the world like a pair of orang-utans flourishing their posteriors, each determined that the other will not score a psychological point before they have to go out and score the real ones. No one is taken in, yet it happens all the time.

At least England have not tried to persuade anyone that they are the underdogs. Their victories over Ireland, France and Wales have been more emphatic than the Scots' and, in vital contrast to 1990 when they came to grief in similar circumstances, they are this time on their own, more intimidating patch.

Which is to say those of us who used to turn up as visitors to the old, pre-development Twickenham and shake our heads at the unlikely decorum and good manners of the place imagined that it had become more intimidating, noisier and rowdier. Not so, according to Douglas Morgan, Scotland's coach, who was twice in losing Scottish sides there.

"The present-day Twickenham is a bit less intimidating than previously," he insisted yesterday, seeking to score a slightly different psychological point. "When I played it was like playing up a back alley but now it's opened up and won't be any more intimidating than what we met in Parc des Princes.

"This was a reference to Scotland's first win in France in 26 years. Their record in England is much better: They last won at Twickenham in 1983 and Carling, the England captain, is absolutely right in his assertion that, provided his team play as well as they can, it will be 1997 at the earliest before Scotland can add to their derisory two wins at Twickenham since the war.

Small wonder the big man, Gavin Hastings, appreciates the need for his Scots to play as they have not yet played even in this season of steady improvement and better even than in the triumph - personal and collective - of Paris.

"It is going to require no less an effort for us even to have a chance of victory," he said yesterday. "History speaks for itself when the Scots come down to Twickenham. It is the most important game of rugby we've ever played in our lives."

Considering Hastings has appeared in a World Cup semi-final (against England) and a previous Grand Slam match (also against England), this is evidence of a deliberately short memory. Thus Scotland's distressing history of matches at Twickenham, where they have only ever won four times in 36 attempts, is worth mentioning; his own illustrious personal history is not.

More pertinent is whether Scotland's superbly organised and disciplined rucking game, central to the destruction of Wales a fortnight ago, can tie in England's large forwards as tightly as it did the lesser Welsh. "I always work on the premise that Scotland should get five players to a spot where England can only get four," Ian McGeechan, Morgan's coaching predecessor, said.

If they can fulfil McGeechan's premise, the Scots really will be on to something but the logical outcome is very different, partly because of the simple fact that England are so physically superior to any of the other Five Nations sides Scotland have played and partly because they are also so much better.

In any event if the Scots get carried away by the worst of the ill-considered verbal enmity that has peppered their papers this week, culminating yesterday in Craig Chalmers' fatuous remarks about the supposed arrogance of this England side, they are liable to lose their clinical judgement and with it the match.

In fact one of the strengths of this England side, in contrast perhaps to their 1990 predecessors who lost a Grand Slam match at Murrayfield, is precisely the absence of condescension and presumption, let alone arrogance. And that, as the Scots are liable to find, is what makes them so very dangerous.

TWICKENHAM TEAMS

ENGLAND v SCOTLAND

M Catt Bath 15 G Hastings Watsonians, capt

T Underwood Leicester 14 C Joiner Melrose

W Carling Harlequins, capt 13 G Townsend Gala

J Guscott Bath 12 S Hastings Watsonians

R Underwood Leicester 11 K Logan Stirling County

R Andrew Wasps 10 C Chalmers Melrose

K Bracken Bristol 9 B Redpath Melrose

J Leonard Harlequins 1 D Hilton Bath

B Moore Harlequins 2 K Milne Heriot's FP

V Ubogu Bath 3 P Wright Boroughmuir

M Johnson Leicester 4 G Weir Melrose

M Bayfield Northampton 5 S Campbell Dundee HSFP

T Rodber Northampton 6 R Wainwright West Hartlepool

D Richards Leicester 8 E Peters Bath

B Clarke Bath 7 I Morrison London Scottish

Referee: B Stirling (Ireland). Kick-off: 2.45 (BBC1)

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