Brutal Calcutta Cup battle guaranteed: England must beware Scotland's wing power in Six Nations
Much will depend on the red rose forwards' intensity, and their ability to deprive Maitland and Visser of the ball
Contrary to popular belief, there are plenty of Scottish rugby folk out there who are more interested in the addition of two new try-scoring wings to the Calcutta Cup mix than in rehashing a load of old cross-border flannel about the "arrogant" English. Blue-shirted backs have not often posed the principal threat to red-rose ambitions in recent seasons but, by pairing the Dutch-born Tim Visser and the New Zealand-born Sean Maitland for the first time, the visitors look significantly more dangerous today than for many a long year.
This much was conceded by Graham Rowntree – not, perhaps, the member of the England think tank best equipped to assess the potential of a freshly minted Scotland back line, but by no means ignorant of the perils of playing fast and loose against people who know their way to the goal-line. "I think they do present more of a threat in the wide areas now," agreed the forwards coach. "In fact, they'll present challenges all over the field."
If Rowntree's prediction comes to pass, as it may well do, it will be a radical departure from the norm. Scotland's inability to turn possession into points has driven successive bosses to drink – there were moments during Andy Robinson's recent stewardship when a phone call to the Samaritans looked imminent – but there are high hopes for this latest offshore wide combination, especially as they will be in cahoots with the Glasgow full-back Stuart Hogg, who can play a bit.
Both Visser, who made his international debut on Scotland's successful visit to the Pacific islands last summer, and Maitland, who will win his first cap, know what it is to play at Twickenham – and score there, too. The Dutchman, born in Zeewolde, bagged a couple of tries for the Barbarians when playing against an England XV in 2011; the New Zealander, born in Tokoroa, claimed a brace for the Christchurch-based Crusaders during the course of a relocated Super XV game with the Durban-based Sharks that same year.
There is no shortage of confidence about either of them. Almost by definition, Maitland is nobody's fool: the Crusaders, probably the best non-international team in world rugby, would never play a man 54 times if he was not up to much. Visser, meanwhile, has gone out of his way to bait his opposite number, Chris Ashton, by voicing reservations about the Saracens wing's defensive capabilities. He may have a point. Ashton has had his problems with wings of the more substantial variety – Hosea Gear of New Zealand certainly put the frighteners on him a couple of seasons back – and Visser weighs in at 17st-plus.
Of course, wings are only as good as the ball they receive, and there are a couple of reasons to think that Visser and Maitland might struggle for quality possession this afternoon. Firstly, the jury is out on Scotland's midfield combination. Secondly, the England forwards will be a serious proposition, both at set piece and in the loose, if they manage to reproduce the collective effort that did for the All Blacks before Christmas.
"This is what we've been speaking about for the two weeks we've been in camp: recreating the intensity we generated against New Zealand, especially around the breakdown," Rowntree said. "We've certainly trained with that in mind, because it has to be our benchmark. It's our aim to hit those levels every time we play.
"In the year we've been together under Stuart Lancaster, we've definitely made progress. We've shown significant promise in certain matches and shown a lot of character in others. Now we have to deal with expectation – and there's a lot of expectation, some of it potentially misplaced, surrounding this particular match from people outside our group – and back up our good performances game on game. We're determined to be hard to beat. That's one of our bedrock statements. We want to challenge our opponents in every area of the field, for the duration of every contest."
England have moved a considerable way towards realising that goal since Lancaster succeeded Martin Johnson in the aftermath of a 2011 World Cup campaign that was every bit as tawdry as it was tedious. The energetic newcomers up front – the hooker Tom Youngs, the lock Joe Launchbury – have made far greater impacts than initially anticipated, and if the debutant centre Billy Twelvetrees can do likewise today, the red-rose midfield game could also be raised.
But this is not an easy fixture by any means. Scotland may not have won at Twickenham in 30 years, but they could easily have prevailed in each of the last four meetings between the nations. Now, with the former England No 8 and highly regarded Premiership coach Dean Ryan helping out on the pack preparation front, they at least travel in hope.
Ryan's presence in the opposition camp has put England on edge. "I have a lot of respect for Dean," said Rowntree. "He was a right old handful as a player, that's for sure, and he's a very astute reader of the game. He'll add something to the Scottish pack." Asked which pack he expected to see this afternoon – the belligerent one that squeezed out a victory over the Wallabies in Australia last June or the pitiful one that fired blanks against Tonga in November – the coach looked wistful. "I'd prefer the pitiful, but we'll get the belligerent," he replied.
It would be stretching a point to suggest that Scotland are fielding a weapons-grade forward unit, but with Alasdair Strokosch and Kelly Brown on the flanks and Euan Murray on the tight-head side of the front row, they certainly carry a destructive element. England start as clear favourites, which is as it should be after the victory over the world champions, but if they are half a notch off their game, pretty much anything could happen. Especially as the visitors will have size and strength in the wide-open prairies, as well as in the darkened recesses.
Close shaves: A recent history of England and Scotland clashes
Scotland 15 England 15: Murrayfield, March 2010
The Scots were marginally the better of two poor sides and controlled much of a tryless game. England might have snatched it at the death, but the home scrum-half Rory Lawson just managed to lay a hand on Toby Flood's drop-goal attempt.
England 22 Scotland 16: Twickenham, March 2011
John Barclay, the Scottish flanker, had himself a ball at the tackle area, single-handedly spiking England's attacking game. Only when he was sent to the cooler did the home side make a decisive move, Tom Croft scoring the crucial try against 14 men.
England 16 Scotland 12: Auckland, October, 2011
Ahead for all but the last three minutes of an important World Cup pool game, Scotland would almost certainly have closed out the contest had they not been chasing an eight-point victory margin. Chris Ashton claimed the only try, very late in the day.
Scotland 6 England 13: Murrayfield, February 2012
Stuart Lancaster's first game as England's interim coach ended in sweet relief, but he went through the full range of agonies before his new-look side tackled their way home on the back of Charlie Hodgson's opportunist charge-down try.
Six Nations fixtures
Wales v Ireland (1.30pm)
England v Scotland (4pm)
Italy v France (3pm)
Scotland v Italy (2.30pm)
France v Wales (5pm)
Ireland v England (3pm)
Italy v Wales (2.30pm)
England v France (5pm)
Scotland v Ireland (2pm)
Scotland v Wales (2.30pm)
Ireland v France (5pm)
England v Italy (3pm)
Italy v Ireland (2.30pm)
Wales v England (5pm)
France v Scotland (8pm)
*All matches live on BBC1
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