England's risk-takers deserve the prize

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If Margaret Thatcher had introduced the Poll Tax in Surrey instead of Scotland, the SNP would be nothing more than the political wing of the White Heather Club, Braveheart would have won the Oscar for the Best Comedy on the basis that it is to history what Brett Sinkinson's agent is to geography, and David Sole's slow march at Murrayfield in 1990 would have been seen as an act of deference to the Auld Enemy, not defiance.

The sheer effrontery of that action did incalculable damage to England. Geoff Cooke, England's coach 10 years ago, has always maintained that the two most useless words in the English language are "if only". But how often have the players who took part in that defeat repeated them since? If only they hadn't watched the video of Scotland's struggle to beat a poor Welsh side in the previous match; if only they hadn't set up base camp in Peebles, where they were unaware of the intensity of the feeling building up in Edinburgh. If only they had kicked their penalties in the first half; if only the communication between forwards and backs amidst the deafening clamour from the stands had been better; and, the biggest "if only" of them all - if only Mike Teague hadn't knocked on at the base of the English scrum.

Seldom in sporting history has a single seemingly insignificant mistake had such profound consequences. Despite trailing by five points, England were in complete control of their destiny at half-time. That they blew it big time is history. But England will ignore the past at their peril today. For once this season there will be no empty seats at Murrayfield. The atmosphere, as it was 10 years ago, will be electric; the noise, the pace and the emotional intensity different to anything the players have experienced. In such circumstances the smallest hitch can transform winners into losers and the mangiest of underdogs into the sleekest of thoroughbreds.

When the Scots kicked out on the full at the start of the second half in the 1990 Calcutta Cup, the England half-backs, Richard Hill and Rob Andrew, knew exactly what to do. With the wind behind them and Andrew's right boot in perfect rhythmical order, they would set up an attacking position inside the Scottish 22 and there they would stay until the job was done.

Alas, as often happens in the heat of battle, communication broke down. The pack, for some obscure reason, decided on a back-row move, a tactical blunder of massive proportions. Teague knocked on and seconds later Tony Stanger scored the try which won the Grand Slam. Simple mistake, brutal punishment.

It could happen again this afternoon, although there are a number of sound reasons why it shouldn't. There is a hunger raging within this English side which was conspicuously absent from their predecessors who, 10 years ago, were just setting out on the adventure which was to bring them so much success.

Today's England, however, know only too well the wretchedness of unfulfilled ambition; the memory of Scott Gibbs' try at Wembley is undimmed by the passage of 12 months. The lessons for this side from their victories, and, more to the point, from their defeats appear to have been learned. They are ready and fully prepared.

There can be no comparison between the Scottish side of 10 years ago and the present one. In 1990 the Scots possessed a pack which had come through the fires of three championship matches. The back row of John Jeffrey, Finlay Calder and Derek White were a match for any side, and in the backs Gavin Hastings and Gary Armstrong were out of the top drawer. This time it has been a problem to find a good word to say about any Scottish player.

Few possess the natural talent of Gregor Townsend, but there again even fewer have his capacity to excite and exasperate so many times in 80 minutes. He remains the most serious threat to England's best-laid plans but, once again without John Leslie at his side, he is woefully short of colleagues who operate on the same wavelength. Not that there has been any indication this season that the two have been singing the same hymn, let alone sharing the same hymn-sheet.

In any case, whatever the continuing doubts about England's ability to rise to the biggest of occasions, it has been damnably hard, for critics and opponents alike, to pick holes in their defence. From his abject defensive display against Ireland, it is clear that Emile Ntamack still bears the scars of being poleaxed by Jonny Wilkinson, but now every man-jack in the side is getting in on the act, which is testing the ingen-uity of opponents to the limit. So far it has been beyond all of them, and the Scots look the least well- equipped to crack England's seemingly impenetrable casing.

There isn't much evidence to suggest the unique atmosphere of a packed Murrayfield and the importance of the occasion will inhibit England. Woodward himself was in the identical position in Bill Beaumont's Grand Slam-winning side in 1980. On that day England were as powerfully irresistible on the pitch as they were on paper. They went at the Scots from the start, attacking from all parts of the field. The present side have the confidence and the ability to do the same.

They will no doubt respect but not fear the Scottish pack, they will not entertain the notion that their back row, the outstanding triumvirate in world rugby, will come second in the loose, and their young Turks behind the scrum appear to be nerveless.

For that Woodward must take a large share of the credit. He has persuaded them to take risks and when they have failed has encouraged them to stick with it. England are not only the best side in the championship, they are the most entertaining, and deserve the Grand Slam. The prize, against a demoral-ised Scotland, is within their grasp. But not the least of sport's enduring delights is its uncertainty, and for the Scots there is the knowledge that they could be within 80 minutes of turning a calamitous season into a triumphant one.