Rugby Union: Scotland's Grand illusion

Chris Rea believes that English conviction can carry the day at Twickenham
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DURING their magical and, to some, mystifying, journey to next Saturday's summit at Twickenham, Scotland have - despite appearances to the contrary - travelled as much in expectation as hope.

They have defiantly and stylishly made a nonsense of the predictions that they would be the weakest side in the championship. Their steady improvement since the victory over Canada has been veiled in the guise of self-deprecation. And so it has continued in the wake of last week's demolition of Wales.

In all their public utterances since, the Scots have been gushingly profuse in their praise of England. Some mistake, surely. Off-the-field relations between the unions have never been worse. The Scots' fury over Welsh proposals to stage the 1999 World Cup was aimed not so much at Wales as at their connivance with England. If the fact that the Rugby Football Union's size and influence places them first among equals in the four home countries is an anathema to the SRU, the Scottish players have no such hang-ups about Will Carling's team. They are perfectly prepared to concede that man for man, England are probably superior.

Furthermore, the Scots know that despite the exhilaration of their season so far, they have won nothing yet, and should they lose at Twickenham they will return home with much less than Wales did last year when the Five Nations' trophy helped cushion the disappointment of losing to England.

And what a trick of the light that has turned out to be. The same fate could befall the Scots although, even in their darkest spells, they have proved to be more adept than most at keeping up appearances. Through the almost impenetrable fog of nine games without a win it was still possible to detect a coherent pattern to their play which is more than can be said of Wales last week.

A reappraisal of attitudes by some Scotsmen, the rediscovery of lost form by others and the unearthing of Bath's accessories, David Hilton and Eric Peters, have combined to give point and direction to a subtly shifting tactical plan.

In contrast to the events at Murrayfield five years ago when a number of Englishmen had benefited from Ian McGeechan's tuitition with the 1989 Lions, it will be the Scots who will be preparing to meet their maker in the form of Jack Rowell. There has been ample evidence of English influence in Scotland's forward play this season which may be one reason why the RFU will be seeking to restrict the number of imports playing in the Courage Leagues in future.

If Peters's contribution to Scotland's success thus far and, in particular, to their win over Wales, had been more spectacularly apparent, Hilton's strength and technique have had a profound effect on the Scottish scrummage which at the start of the season seemed ripe for plunder. Last Saturday, however, they gave the impression of solidity against a front row which, albeit with one enforced change at tight head, had given England a rigorous test a fortnight earlier.

If there are still question marks over Peter Wright's ability as a scrummager, they are no larger than the ones which continue to hover over Victor Ubogu. Both have their place in packs which prefer dynamism in the loose to destructive force in the tight. It astounded many observers at Murrayfield last week that Kenny Logan, had he not singled out Eric Peters for the honour of scoring such a wondrous try, could just as easily have passed to Wright, who had matched the No 8's alacrity in support.

Nevertheless, it will not have escaped England's notice that there were a number of disconcertingly wide cracks appearing in Scotland's midfield that day and the thought of propelling their gigantic back row towards the Scottish defence from an advancing scrummage is sure to get the juices flowing. Equally menacing is the rolling maul remorselessly crushing all in its path.

This, in the view of those Irish, French and Welsh who have forlornly attempted to resist it in the past couple of months, is infinitely more dangerous than England's scrummage or line-out. The problem is, of course, that although the monster forms independently of both, it feeds off set- piece possession and derives much of its power from England's control, particularly at the line-out.

Scotland's line-out variations came off against Wales. Time and again they pillaged their opponents' possession, pouring through the jagged gaps on to the unprotected Robert Jones. Giving Rob Wainwright a rover ticket worked well, the Scots doing rather better than England at deceiving and committing the Welsh tail. On the other hand, England, by changing the pace and trajectory of their throws, began to get more out of Martin Bayfield as the game progressed in Cardiff, and with four of their forwards at 6ft 5in and above, there is no shortage of receptive targets for Brian Moore to aim at.

In that tumultuous Grand Slam contest in 1990, the Scots were also outgunned at the line-out, yet they made light of their handicap by meticulous planning and judicious use of their limited resources, their jumpers interchanging with baffling speed and agililty. Scotland's broad plan may be close to the one they employed five years ago.

The ability of the Scottish backs this season to embellish the work of their forwards has been rewarded with tries against France and Wales as decisive as they were decorative. The one scored by Gavin Hastings in those final seconds at Parc des Princes will rank along with Jean-Luc Sadourny's in New Zealand last summer in that it made history, required a touch of genius to create, and that it won a match which seemed certain to be lost. But of almost equal importance to Scotland, as much for its timing as for its dazzling audacity, was Peters's try last Saturday.

Wales had been growing in confidence and purpose and a couple of minutes earlier had been grievously wronged by the referee's ill-judged intervention. Apart from that decision, Steve Lander had a good match. But after Peters had scored, their cause was irretrievably lost.

Against England, the Scots' alertness to the opportunities for counter- attack will be even more crucial. Talk of Craig Chalmers aiming his lethal projectiles at the thrice-tried but still untested Mike Catt is all very well, but that presupposes a forward control which has successively been denied to Ireland, France and Wales and which Scotland may find just as hard to achieve. There are too many Englishmen playing at Twickenham next Saturday who still bear the scars of that Calcutta Cup match five years ago for the Scots to rely on the over-confidence of their opponents.

As vivid in the memory as the stampede of the Scottish crowd to reach their heroes at the end of that game is the look of dazed incomprehension on the face of the English players, five of whom have waited patiently to take their revenge. Forget the five successive wins England have accumulated in the intervening years, including the victory in the 1991 World Cup semi-final at Murrayfield. None would be sweeter to Messrs Carling, Andrew, Underwood, Guscott and Moore than this.

There has been an unfaltering conviction about England's game this season arising not from complacency but from an absolute certainty in their strategy and their ability to carry it through. Not for them a reliance on luck or the fallibility of the opposition. In their three games so far they have been masters of their own destiny, impervious to the vagaries of fortune which afflict lesser sides. No country has succeeded in offering a sustained challenge to their supremacy. Ireland never came close, neither did the French cockerel, all feathers and no guts, and only Wales, for half an hour, managed to compete on equal terms.

Even more ominous is the knowledge that England, nerveless, dispassionate and clinical, haven't fully opened the throttle yet. Woe betide the opposition if they do. That the final scene in this year's championship will be enacted at Twickenham, where Scotland have won only twice since 1938, is another factor weighing heavily in England's favour. On the other hand, the Scots, who have so far exceeded the expectations of everyone, including themselves, will be free of the burdens weighing on England. There is so much at stake - the Calcutta Cup, Triple Crown, Five Nations' Trophy and the Grand Slam. "Surely," said Kenny Milne in the afterglow of the victory at Murrayfield last Saturday, "Scotland can win one of them."