Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship: England gambling on rapier's thrust: Lions captaincy one of the prizes on offer at Twickenham as Wales look for a running game in Cardiff

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EVERY new year in its way presents a new crisis for the Scots, so their sympathy should not be expected when England reach their own crisis point in this afternoon's Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham. Crisis, what crisis? Well by recent standards, a second successive defeat would be unthinkable.

For Scotland - specifically for Ian McGeechan, who retires as their coach after today's game - the maximising of minimal resources is a constant concern. Perhaps this familiarity with adversity is why they - and he - have succeeded so well that it is the Scots and not the English who are seeking the Triple Crown.

But for England what confronts them in this game, as it confronted their management when they made their selection for it, is whether players who carried all before them mostly using one style of rugby can now move on to further success using another. It is time for the bludgeoners to use their rapier.

And it will be inordinately difficult, since even England's most ardent admirers admit that here as nowhere else old habits die hard. Will Carling's team have tended to play the new laws as they would have done the old; hence the mediocrity of their performances culminating in defeat by Wales a month ago.

The evidence of the hiding Scotland subsequently gave the Welsh suggests that McGeechan is right when he described the events in Cardiff as no more than a 'blip'. But the fact is that, by winning handsomely against opponents to whom England had lost, his team will go in with a critical psychological edge. Now if only the game had been at Murrayfield . . .

Even at home, where they are unbeaten in the championship since 1987, England must be assailed by doubt though they profess none. Otherwise they would not have replaced their outside- half and made it so clear that they expect Stuart Barnes to make more things happen than Rob Andrew did. Given that Andrew would have been the 'safe' choice, Barnes represents an uncharacteristic gamble.

Uncharacteristic, but necessary if England are again to bring out the best in a back division who have passed through this season either unused or misused. Barnes's inclusion means that for the first time in ages an opposing back row will have to focus on the England stand-off as well as everyone else. Logic dictates that that will at last create more room amid the midfield clutter for the outside backs.

It is as fundamental a change as England have made during their years of European hegemony, a change of emphasis towards attack and variety not simply as a tactical option for one match but as a strategic necessity. Barnes knows all about this: his own club, Bath, became over-obsessed with forward brawn because it carried all before it. In the end, they too had to change.

'The 'club' spirit in the England side has sustained them through lesser performances in a way I recognise from Bath,' Barnes said. 'I also recognise that at Bath there was a time five or six years ago when the solidity and strength became a weakness because we became inflexible.

'Maybe it's natural with a successful team to keep on doing the things that have made you successful but in the meantime everyone else is watching you, catching up and finding ways to stop you. The trick with a really good side is to take stock and then move on again. This is what happened with Bath and I hope, with a fresh approach, will happen with England.'

So you should never sit back - which, however subconsciously, is what happened against Wales. Complacency by another name. Sometimes England have got away with it, but Scotland never could. 'It's not easy winning at this level and, with the number of players we have, we've got to be right every time,' McGeechan said. 'We constantly have to think ahead and not be satisfied.'

The coach's farewell is not final, since he will take the Lions to New Zealand in May and even thereafter his absence may be no more than a sabbatical. Places on that tour, not least the captaincy itself, are the prize for today's contestants no matter how intensely they claim to be focusing on each other rather than the All Blacks.

As Geoff Cooke, the England manager, will be alongside McGeechan as Lions manager, there are diplomatic niceties to be observed but already effusive praise has lined up McGeechan behind Gavin Hastings and Cooke behind Carling.

It may be wrong that a single, all- too-brief encounter can decide something as important; indeed Cooke's argument is that Carling has a five-year leadership pedigree where Hastings has less than one. But it has happened before: Alun Pask lost the 1966 Lions captaincy the moment Wales lost to Ireland.

A more tangible and immediate prize is the new championship trophy, whose acceptance by the Five Nations' Committee at Twickenham this morning means that no longer can the title be shared as it has 19 times over the past 110 years. Instead, points difference will be decisive in the event of a tie.

One might have imagined such an alteration to long tradition would have been worthy of a modicum of public relations but, because there has been none, it has had about as much impact as Ireland have had on this season's championship. The silversmith who made the bauble has gone bust, and maybe that tells its own story.

Barnes to break mould, page 53

Scott Hastings primed, page 52

(Photograph omitted)

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