This is the most closely fought of the nine Six Nations Championships to date – in fact, it is difficult to remember an occasion when the old Five Nations tournament was more fiercely contested – yet people still make the mistake of assuming too much. There is a widespread expectation that England have only to turn up in Edinburgh this afternoon to retain the Calcutta Cup and put themselves in a position to challenge for the title next weekend, but history tells us that Scotland is not the best place in the world for an Englishman to take things for granted.
Agreed, Brian Ashton's team travel as favourites on the back of a victory in France that was, in certain crucial areas, quite outstanding. I'm talking primarily about the defensive effort, allied to a scrummaging performance of the highest quality. Phil Vickery and his colleagues exerted the kind of control that enabled them to let the French do pretty much as they liked in their own third of the field, secure in the knowledge that they could prevent them doing it anywhere else. When England have that kind of head on, they are desperately difficult to beat. It's precisely the mindset that took them to two World Cup finals.
But how will they go today if they find themselves chasing the game? In each of the first three rounds, England started well and opened up an early lead. Against Wales, they were 10 points up at the interval; against Italy, they were 19-6 ahead at half-time; in Paris, Jamie Noon's tackling and Paul Sackey's finishing put France on the back foot almost immediately. So far, they haven't been tested in terms of coming from points down.
For Scotland, therefore, the initial exchanges will be crucial. Twice in their last four meetings with England at Murrayfield, they have won by weathering the storm and slowly upping the ante. I was England's head coach the last time this happened, in 2006, and I remember vividly how Scottish passion on the field was increasingly matched by the emotional response from their supporters. We should have won the game: some of the errors we made that day, in basic skills as well as game management, make me angry even now. The fact is, we didn't win it. Scotland went toe to toe with us, made fewer mistakes and sent us home to think again, as the song has it.
It will be a challenging afternoon for the Scots. Having coached Edinburgh for the last three months or so and started working with the Scotland A side, I can say with some confidence that a good deal of talent is percolating through the system. The scrum-half bank is particularly impressive – I have a tremendous amount of time for Mike Blair, and players of the quality of Rory Lawson and Chris Cusiter would make their way in any rugby environment you care to mention. There are a lot of extremely gifted back-row forwards, too. However, no international side can afford to concede the points the Scots have conceded in the last three games and hope to win. If the other lot score 30, or thereabouts, you'll lose.
They have fallen into the unfortunate habit of undermining their own efforts by conceding bad tries at bad times. Some of them have come from poor kicking, others from individual errors. The effort is there, the passion is there, and if you look at the Scottish performance in the round, they have produced some decent rugby for quite long periods of time. These things can swing: one mega-tackle from someone could change the mood and turn things round.
Vickery is worth his weight in gold
Can it happen this afternoon? I know from bitter experience that the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. But if Scotland are to give themselves a chance, they will have to find a way of dealing with Vickery and his fellow prop, the formidable Andrew Sheridan.
I talked earlier about the English "head" – the attitude they take into a game when there is a backs-against-the-wall, bodies-on-the-line air about it. To my mind, Vickery is the physical representation of that attitude. After last autumn's World Cup, many people assumed Phil would pack it in. A player with a long history of career-threatening injuries, he was injured once again. In addition, Matt Stevens of Bath was playing magnificently – a mobile, highly skilled and thoroughly modern brand of rugby that put him in the front rank of the front-row union's new generation. It was assumed (that word again) that the change would be immediate.
You don't have to be much of a genius to work out that Stevens is going to be a major asset to English rugby, but I didn't think for one second that he would replace Vickery in the starting line-up from the outset of the tournament. I am, and always have been, a Vickery man, because the things he brings to the table are precisely the things a coach craves: aggression, determination, attitude. Why would England have wanted to lose those things a second earlier than they had to?
Not so long ago, around 2001-02, there was a clamour for Martin Johnson to be pensioned off. He was not the youngest, he was picking up the odd injury, he was getting himself into hot water with referees. "Time to move on," came the cry. Great idea! Martin played some of the best rugby of his career in 2003, just when England needed it. The result? A Grand Slam, victory over the Wallabies in Australia and a world title.
Vickery is cut from similar cloth, and I believe he is worth his weight in gold. What is more, his no-holds-barred approach has rubbed off on Sheridan, who has five good years left in him and is now in a position to establish himself as one of the great forwards of our time. People are running scared of him – there isn't a tight-head prop in the championship who has been prepared to take him on. Maybe Carl Hayman, the All Blacks' premier scrummager, is the only man equipped to do so. If Sheridan is given a free rein this afternoon, the Scottish set piece will be seriously challenged.
Cipriani is too big a talent to lose
So, Danny Cipriani finds himself dropped from the side after being photographed emerging from a London nightclub in the small hours of Thursday morning. Brian has made a big call here, and left himself open to accusations of over-reaction. I'm the first to emphasise the need for strong teamship protocols – rules that govern the behaviour of each individual in the squad for the wider benefit of all – and if Danny was in serious breach, some kind of action was inevitable. However, if the decision to dump him was simply a knee-jerk response, or one done purely for effect, I would be less comfortable with it.
It has long been the case that players are given a clear day before an international, and that if they so wish, they can travel home and spend it with their families. How many of them have popped down the pub and spent a relaxing hour chatting to friends? Quite a number, probably, and I have no problem with that. Self-discipline is a vital part of a player's make-up and most of those involved at the top level behave with great responsibility. I just hope Danny comes through this stronger and wiser, because he's too big a talent to lose.
I think he'll have a long career in the limelight. Back in 2006, part of my build-up to international fixtures was to get England training pretty much full-on against a variety of opponents. London Irish were among them, as were the England A team and the Under-21s. The team who performed the best were the Under-19s, who were very impressive indeed. Who led them? Danny Cipriani.
What struck me immediately was his ability to play under pressure. He was clearly very talented in his skill set, but there are lots of talented players around. If you're going to separate the few who can truly prosper at international level and the many who will fall short, you look at an individual's capacity to think clearly and execute his skills in the most extreme and demanding circumstances.
For this reason alone, I applauded his promotion earlier this week, and I'll applaud it when he's selected again. He's still very young, and errors go with the territory. But he won't be fazed by the things he gets wrong, any more than he'll be fazed by the prospect of starting for England in front of a hostile crowd. We're talking here about someone mentally equipped to deal with everything a rugby game can throw at him.
O'Sullivan v Gatland the one to watch
To say the very least, there is no love lost between the two coaches at the centre of this afternoon's big match in Dublin: Eddie O'Sullivan of Ireland and Warren Gatland of Wales. The history between them is well chronicled – Gatland was pushed out of the Ireland job in 2001 despite recording some excellent results and O'Sullivan, his assistant, moved into the senior position. There has been some tension ever since and it will reach its height today.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I love this kind of stuff. Remember the Clive Woodward-Eddie Jones rivalry before every England-Australia game? I witnessed it at first hand, and found it hugely entertaining. It certainly added some fuel to the fire: I remember Clive going berserk when we put a try past the Wallabies at Twickenham, purely for Eddie's benefit. I remember the look on Eddie's face, too. Priceless.
Both O'Sullivan and Gatland are in a "losing is not an option" frame of mind and the game will be white-hot. Can Wales prevail and keep their Grand Slam challenge alive? Frankly, I don't see them as a Grand Slam side, and I take the Irish pack, bolstered by the return of Paul O'Connell, to make the big plays. The Welsh have match-winners in their midst, not least Shane Williams, who is playing as well as any wing in the world. But the Irish have some major weapons of their own outside the scrum. Ronan O'Gara has the best kicking game of any outside-half right now and, with Andrew Trimble dragging the brilliant Brian O'Driscoll back into form, I believe a home victory is the most likely outcome.
Player to Watch: Simon Taylor (Scotland)
Scotland's best No 8 has missed more than his fair share of rugby down the years – if Phil Vickery and Jonny Wilkinson are prone to injury, this guy is right up there with them – but when the going is good, Taylor is as exciting a back-rower as you will find in northern hemisphere rugby. He has quality stamped right the way through him: he has a hard-edged defensive game to set alongside his outstanding footballing skills, and he gives his team valuable options at the back of the line-out. We toured together with the Lions in both 2001 and 2005, and I have no doubt that he would have made the Test side had he stayed fit. One of my regrets is that I didn't have the chance to coach him as part of the first-choice pack on either trip, but I know from the time I spent with him that he is a loose forward of immense talent.Reuse content