It is one thing for Scotland to spook the English with an intimidating entrance of the "slow walk" variety, as they famously did on Grand Slam day at Murrayfield a little over two decades ago.
It is quite another to attempt to beat them with a back division that spends much of its time decelerating from a standing start. Tomorrow's Calcutta Cup game at Twickenham pits the try-scoring heavyweights of the Six Nations Championship against the non-scoring lightweights, which is why the bookmakers are quoting silly odds in support of a home victory.
True, Andy Robinson's team put three tries past the French in the opening round of the tournament, but they conceded four to lose the game and have not troubled the opposition whitewash since. More than anyone, the coach is aware of the gulf in firepower that separates this weekend's contestants. He was part of the England backroom team in 2001, when the world champions in waiting scored 29 tries in retaining the Six Nations title – 28 of them in four exhilarating performances before an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease delayed their trip to Ireland by several months. Scotland? They have managed barely twice that number in 11 years.
Martin Johnson was the captain of that 2001 side. Tomorrow, he pits his wits against the coach who helped him achieve greatness as a second-row forward. "There's no more passionate rugby man than Andy," he said yesterday. "And more than anyone else we play, the Scots are likely to throw something different at us. They'll have two or three things specifically prepared for this game. If we're going to win, we'll have to be better than we were last time we played."
As England beat the French last time out, shutting them out defensively despite the best efforts of running backs as dangerous as Yannick Jauzion and Aurélien Rougerie, that last comment stretched credulity just a little. There are no Jauzions or Rougeries in the Scottish back line – no Vincent Clercs or Dimitri Yachvilis either. The visitors are not slow individually: their wings, Max Evans and Simon Danielli, are quick enough in their very different ways, and the return of Joe Ansbro in midfield should sharpen the blunt edge to a degree. As a unit, however, they are positively funereal. Even the Italians score more often.
By contrast, England have put together a wide unit imbued with the buccaneering spirit – Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto spend less time on their touchlines than any pair of wings in the international game – and, even more importantly, have found themselves some forwards capable of performing at a high tempo for long periods. Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole, Tom Palmer and Tom Wood... these people get around. Now that Tom Croft is back in the mix and Courtney Lawes is a game away from full fitness, Johnson has options coming out of his cauliflower ears.
Complacency is the danger for England tomorrow, hence the manager's litany of guarded comments. First note of caution: "Everything we've achieved so far, we've earned. Now, we have to go out and earn it all over again." Second note of caution: "Last autumn, Scotland beat the Springboks. A week later, we were beaten by the Springboks." Third note of caution: "Highs and lows – you're never far from either. Before we played the Wallabies in November, people said they were the best side in the world and it was impossible for us to run the ball against them. After we beat them, they were in crisis and we were favourites for the World Cup."
Even now, three-quarters of the way to a first clean sweep in eight years, England are a long way short of that kind of status. But their confidence is growing, and they will be disappointed if they fail to record a decisive victory in this game. Back in 2003, they rattled up 40 points against the Scots on home soil, and scored even more heavily in 2005 and 2007 before slipping off their standard with a narrow win in '09 – Johnson's first and most traumatic Six Nations series as manager. With another World Cup looming large and a pool date with Scotland scheduled for Auckland at the start of October, this is the perfect moment to re-establish supremacy.
Not even Johnson could pretend that the Scottish defence had been up to scratch in recent games. "I've been a little surprised at that aspect," he confessed, referring to the super-soft tries conceded to the Welsh and the Irish in their last two games. "But in Test rugby, two or three incidents have such an effect on the outcome of a match. The top end of our game is higher than it was a year ago, but we made five errors in succession against the French and on another day that could have got us killed. We're a little more consistent than we were, but we're in no position to pat ourselves on the back."
Yet for all that, the manager is more relaxed than at any previous point in his stewardship. "We have some characters in the squad and it's good to have some banter," he said. "You can't spend every spare moment talking about defensive line-outs, can you? I'm all for people having fun, as long as it's at the right time." There was a pause, followed by a punchline. "The right time is on a Tuesday." A joke? From Johnson? England must think they can win this one.
Results so far
Wales 19 England 26
Italy 11 Ireland 13
France 34 Scotland 21
England 59 Italy 13
Scotland 6 Wales 24
Ireland 22 France 25
England 17 France 9
Italy 16 Wales 24
Scotland 18 Ireland 21
Today: Italy v France, Wales v Ireland
Tomorrow: England v Scotland.
Sat 19 Mar: France v Wales, Ireland v England, Scotland v Italy.Reuse content