If an England team with three new caps in the starting line-up and a virginal quintet of international rookies on the bench suffer a record defeat at Murrayfield tomorrow – and they will have to go some to lose by more than the 27 points that a fiery band of pugilistic Scots managed in 1986 – it will not be for the want of patriotic fervour. All week, the coaching staff have been reminding the squad of their duty to the badge, the shirt and pretty much everything else in their kitbag. It is enough to push Alex Salmond close to spontaneous combustion.
"I've just received an email from someone listing every player to have represented England since 1871," said Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker head coach, yesterday. "We're talking about 1,300 or so over 130 years. That makes the new people picked for this game members of a very, very exclusive club, and that carries some responsibility.
"Alongside it, there is the responsibility to everyone who has helped each player on his journey: the schoolteacher, the first junior coach, the academy manager, the director of rugby. It's not just about you when you play for England, it's about everyone around you.
"What does the shirt mean to me? You can see it in the power of the nation's support when they get behind a successful England team. We saw it in Euro '96, we've seen it after an Ashes victory, we saw it in 2003 when we won the Rugby World Cup. The spirit that binds the English nation together at times like that is probably the most powerful force there is. What we have to do is harness it by giving the public a team they can cheer."
Lancaster was not draped in a flag of St George, though, and when he had completed his oration he was in no mood to make more of his brand of rugby nationalism – partly, perhaps, because he has much Scottish blood in his DNA and tasted representative rugby with that country's age-group teams. "There are mixed feelings amongst some of my relatives," he admitted, "although my mum is slightly biased towards me."
It has been clear for some time that when it comes to selection, the coach's own bias is towards in-form players blessed with the deep-rooted work ethic he so prizes. Yesterday, he made good on the deal by selecting Phil Dowson, the Northampton back-row forward who commands the greatest respect among his Premiership peers, for a first cap at No 8. Dowson will be alongside new captain Chris Robshaw (one cap) in a remodelled back row in which the blind-side flanker Tom Croft will play the greybeard role at age 26.
What is more, Croft himself will be asked to do things differently. "We want him going round the corner a bit more – to be a little more Lionsesque," said the coach, pointedly. Under the last, Martin Johnson-led regime, the Leicester forward's contribution with ball in hand was distinctly underwhelming, especially when compared with his rampaging performances for the Lions in South Africa three years ago. With workhorses like Dowson and Robshaw alongside him, Croft should find himself in a position to revisit the heights he scaled against the Springboks in Durban and Pretoria. That's the theory, at least.
As expected, Lancaster has gone heavy on the Saracens element outside the scrum, with the English champions' midfield – Charlie Hodgson, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt – picked en bloc. Outside them, the recalled wing David Strettle completes the one-club quartet. "Saracens play in a very particular style that suits them, but we'll be playing a little differently," said Lancaster, and sure enough he named the youngster Farrell at 12 and the South African exile Barritt at 13, rather than the other way round, à la Sarries.
In truth, it will not make a fat lot of difference. Farrell splits first-receiver duties with Hodgson whenever they play together, and Barritt will lead the defensive cavalry charge from inside centre whenever the Scots have a scrum put-in or a line-out throw.
If there was a surprise, it was in Lancaster's decision to gamble as heavily in his bench selection as in his starting line-up. More so, it might be argued. Ben Morgan, the Gloucestershire-born loose forward who, for all his talents, is as green as the Cotswold grass, could be on the field inside a minute, wondering what the hell and why – hardly an ideal situation, given the Scots' traditional strength there. Geoff Parling, who played alongside Dowson at Newcastle, is an intelligent lock and line-out connoisseur reminiscent of the former England captain Steve Borthwick. Yet he too is light on top-level experience, thanks in part to frustrating injury problems.
Rob Webber, the Bath-bound hooker from Wasps? Untried. Lee Dickson, the heart-and-soul Northampton half-back? Untested. Jordan Turner-Hall, the hard-hitting Harlequins centre? Wholly unfamiliar with the unique challenge of a Calcutta Cup game in Edinburgh. Lancaster could, perhaps should, have played a little safer by including a Lions hooker in Lee Mears or a World Cup scrum-half in Joe Simpson. But Lancaster is not interested in anyone's safety, least of all his own.
"We're looking to build a team for now, and for the future," he said. "If we're looking for the next Steve Thompson or Jonny Wilkinson or Nick Easter, we have to start somewhere. And while there are things we're building on from the recent past, this is a new start. This is game one."
- More about:
- P Funk