England platoon prime Grand Slam guns

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The Independent Online

There will be enough emotional electricity pulsing through English veins at Murrayfield tomorrow afternoon to illuminate the very darkest corners of the Scottish highlands and islands. The visitors crave victory for all sorts of reasons: notably to give John Mitchell, their forwards coach, the send-off he deserves as he prepares to leave these shores for his native Waikato, and to establish Jason Leonard, their revered prop forward, as the first player since Cyril Lowe to complete four Grand Slam campaigns.

Given that Lowe, a Corinthian-spirited wing from Blackheath, played his international rugby either side of the Great War, the veteran Harlequin's achievement would be sufficiently rare to guarantee him an everlasting place in the red rose pantheon. "If you pressed me on the subject, I'd have to say the ridiculously physical nature of front-row play means that I never really enjoy a game," Leonard said at one point during this inaugural Six Nations tournament. "It's only afterwards that I experience the satisfaction of a job well done." If things go as the bookmakers expect tomorrow, the aftermath of the old boy's 82nd Test appearance will be the most satisfying of the lot.

Most of all, though, England want this one for themselves, as a squad. The 1990 Grand Slam calamity at Murrayfield means nothing to them - "Crikey, even I was young 10 years ago, and most of this lot were in short trousers," said Clive Woodward, the coach, by way of dismissing all rugby history as bunk - but the memory of last year's rooster-sized cock-up at Wembley still rankles. Lawrence Dallaglio's side were such stone-cold certainties to beat Wales andsecure the Slam that no one was willing to bet against them,especially when the game entered injury time. Thanks to Scott Gibbs and Neil Jenkins, an awful lot of money went down the pan in the final seconds.

Not unreasonably, Woodward points to his millennial brat pack's defensive maturity during those epic dying minutes in Paris in February as evidence of a new ruthlessness in closing out tight encounters. "That was a great game of rugby, and we produced our best performance of the championship by a long way," he said yesterday. "To survive as we did in those surroundings gave us a massive boost; certainly, we haven't looked back since that day. There has been the odd poor spell, of course - I was probably more upbeat about our victory in Rome than I should have been, because our first half there wasn't great - but then, we're setting high standards here."

Those standards are certainly being met and maintained in the attacking sense, not least because the four best outside-halves in the Allied Dunbar Premiership - Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Catt, Austin Healey and Alex King - form the play-making spine of the England squad. If there is an issue with Woodward's latest and most imaginative line-up, it is in the basic discipline of keeping out the opposition. They managed it in France, when they had to, but other opponents have found their way through, over or around the white-shirted barricades. "We're a long way off our best defensively," admitted Woodward. "Phil Larder [the defensive specialist] did his nut when we conceded two tries in Italy. I had to calm him down."

For all their problems this season, the Scots will threaten. They possess almost as many natural stand-offs as England - Duncan Hodge, Gregor Townsend and Chris Paterson all start - and, with Ian McGeechan in the teacher's chair, they will know their times-tables when it comes to strategy. Their back row could well give the celebrated England trio something to think about: Martin Leslie and the debutant, Jason White, are frank and forthright specimens, while Budge Pountney understands exactly how to work his way under Neil Back's skin. If Clayton Thomas, the referee, sanctions a genuine contest for the loose ball, there could well be fun and games.

The force is with England, however. The Scots are brimming with negative motivation - they will laugh long and loud if they spike the Auld Enemy's Grand Slam guns - but Woodward can play all the positive cards. "I really don't know what the Scots will do but, to be quite honest, I'm more concerned about making sure we know what we're doing. You can worry too much about the opposition; it's a mistake I've made in the past. As we've been saying all week, let's deal with the things we can control."

That sense of focus has been a feature of England's preparation throughout the championship. Two days ago, four of the players were asked to pose for a photograph with a couple of girls; when the maidens removed their tops and proudly announced they were celebrating National Cleavage Day, the players turned tail and sprinted off into the distance. When it comes to single-mindedness, this English platoon is clearly in a class of its own.

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