England may be the easiest Six Nations team to select at the moment - for the fourth time in five championship matches, Clive Woodward has named the same starting line-up, together with the same seven-man bench - but Scotland are apparently the easiest side to coach, despite their desperate run of form. "They are at their most dangerous right now," said Woodward yesterday as he looked ahead to Sunday's Grand Slam match at Murrayfield. "They're in a corner and they won't need much motivating."
Woodward, once the great maverick of international rugby selection but now more predictable than the outcome of a Rangers-Celtic derby, recalled Phil Vickery, the Gloucester prop, to his front row and left the rest of his highly effective side in place for this weekend's date with destiny.
Technically speaking, Vickery is still concussed; he suffered a serious bang on his bullet head in the early stages of his club's Premiership match with Northampton on 11 March and is not yet clear of the mandatory stand-down period of three weeks. However, he will be clear come Sunday, and therefore reclaims the tight-head berth from Darren Garforth.
Had Woodward been really bold, he would have shifted the eternally flexible Austin Healey to the left-wing and awarded Iain Balshaw, of Bath, a first Test start on the right, on the grounds that untamed attacking brilliance is a useful weapon to bring to an encounter of these dimensions. However, the coach decided that Ben Cohen's strike rate of five tries in four outings made him a deserving case. "Balshaw is very close; he'd be in the starting line-up of any other team," said Woodward. "But we have a settled side and anyway Balshaw may well get on at some point."
Cohen failed to make the Northampton squad for last weekend's Premiership victory over Sale, while Balshaw ripped Bristol to shreds with two tries, the second of which was of stunning quality. These pertinent points did not faze Woodward in the slightest. "I have a great relationship with John Steele [Northampton's coach] and I respect his decision to rest Ben, whatever his reasons," he said. "But, to tell you the truth, I was quite relieved that Ben didn't play. It was one less potential injury to worry about."
Scotland's status as a potential banana skin is a worry, though, despite the fact that they have one reluctant hand on the wooden spoon after four championship defeats. "In this game, it's possible to turn your entire season around in the course of 80 minutes, as France demonstrated in their World Cup semi-final with the All Blacks," the coach continued. "Every Six Nations side has a big performance in there somewhere, and the Scots haven't produced theirs yet." Significantly, Woodward fears the leadership qualities of Andy Nicol, the former Bath scrum-half appointed to the post yesterday, rather more than those of the injured John Leslie.
Meanwhile, Martin Johnson has been left out of the England A team for the international with Scotland at Goldenacre on Saturday evening. Leicester's World Cup lock was captain in the last A game against the Italians in L'Aquila almost a fortnight ago but has now been granted leave of absence to concentrate on fitness work following a long injury lay-off.
Mark Cornwell, of Gloucester, will play alongside Danny Grewcock of Saracens, another World Cup second row who picked up an injury at the wrong time and is now finding a senior England place harder to come by. Fraser Waters and Mark Denney, the Wasps centres, will play in midfield, outside Northampton's Paul Grayson, who leads the side.
ENGLAND (v Scotland, Murrayfield, 1.0pm Sunday): M Perry (Bath); A Healey (Leicester), M Tindall (Bath), M Catt (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton, capt), J Leonard (Harlequins), P Greening (Wasps), P Vickery (Gloucester), G Archer (Bristol), S Shaw (Wasps), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: N McCarthy (Gloucester), T Woodman (Gloucester), M Corry (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), A Gomarsall (Bedford), A King (Wasps), I Balshaw (Bath).