Lancaster's England enter the maelstrom
Edinburgh weather expected to do its bit as hosts mount fierce Calcutta Cup challenge
The Scots are expecting a good deal of rain to sweep across their capital city this evening. As they are also anticipating equal amounts of "chaos" and "mayhem" to be generated – Andy Robinson, their coach, chose those words most carefully – it is fair to say that England will do very well indeed to record a first Calcutta Cup victory at Murrayfield, their least favourite venue this side of Planet Zog, in eight long and deeply destructive years.
Not that the Scots are comfortable with the widespread casting of England as underdogs. "We're the underdogs here," said Chris Cusiter, the bright-eyed Glasgow scrum-half. "We always are when we play England and no one will convince me otherwise. You only have to look at the facts and figures: they have such huge resources, not least in terms of playing numbers. It doesn't mean we can't beat them, but we expect them to play well." Then he thought for a second before coming over all Alex Salmondish. "We just want them to have a really bad day here."
Both Robinson – as English as it is possible to be despite suggestions by his players that his desire to knock the petals off the red rose runs even deeper than their own – and his first-choice half-back went out of their way to dilute the "Auld Enemy" aspect of today's Six Nations opener. Asked if emotion had a greater stake in this oldest of international fixtures than in any other, Robinson blinked disbelievingly. "Raw emotion is a part of every match," he said. "Rugby is an emotional game. Always."
Even so, there is enough feeling sloshing around to ensure some vigorous drum-beating before kick-off. Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker England coach, has upped the ante ahead of his first game in charge at Test level by playing the patriot card for all he is worth. If Robinson has been going about his work rather differently – he is not, after all, anyone's idea of a Scot – the ferocious competitiveness of his nature will leave little room for calm contemplation during those final minutes behind closed doors.
Accurate historical reflections tend to be at a premium on these occasions. Peter Brown, a fine Scottish captain of 1970s vintage, once demanded that his players "remember Culloden", thereby confusing his audience. "Peter, I don't think we did very well in that one," responded brother Gordon, the formidable Lions lock, on due reflection. The reply was a classic. "I said 'remember Culloden' and that's what I meant," Peter retorted, sticking to his guns, "because after Culloden, they didn't have to get changed and have dinner with the bastards."
Will Scotland dine out on English inexperience and leave Lancaster contemplating a grisly trip to Rome next weekend, where defeat would hole his candidacy for the full-time post below the waterline? It is possible. For all Robinson's dismissal of the been-there-and-done-it factor – "We have more caps than them. So what?" – he feels he can omitplayers as potent as John Barclay, Richie Vernon, Johnnie Beattie and Alastair Kellock from his pack, while the English unit includes a debutant No 8 in Phil Dowson and two men, the lock Mouritz Botha and the new flanker and captain, Chris Robshaw, with two caps between them.
Scotland are never less than competitive in the back row – Robinson discovered that much early as an England flanker, when Finlay Calder was his opposite number –and in last year's Six Nations match at Twickenham the possession-pilfering Barclay went close to winning the game on his own. But by dropping the Glasgow flanker, his preferred operator at the World Cup in New Zealand, and handing the breakaway role to Ross Rennie, the coach has put himself in risky territory. Still, he knows best.
From England's perspective, much depends on Charlie Hodgson rediscovering himself as a Test fly-half. "He's always been a quality player, always been someone capable of running a game," said Robinson, who once picked Hodgson for England. "I remember him playing magnificently against the Springboks, when he was on the front foot." And that's the point. With his forwards in the ascendant, Hodgson has always been a force. Robinson is as aware as anyone that, going backwards, he is not quite so accomplished.
By picking the Saracens midfield en bloc, Lancaster has done all he can to clear the path into international rugby for the centres, Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt, both of whom make debuts here. While the red-rose coaches insist the threesome will play differently for their country than they do for their club, the Scots believe they have them taped. Hodgson's ability to produce something unexpected will be crucial.
So will be the body count. The last thing England need with five new caps on the bench is a couple of early injuries – and injuries have a way of kicking in, for want of a better phrase, in Calcutta Cup games. Scotland are better equipped: the likes of Barclay and Kellock are there to bolster the forwards from the bench, as is the in-form Gloucester hooker Scott Lawson, while the Lions scrum-half Mike Blair and a hardened Test centre, Graeme Morrison, will sit alongside them.
"I believe we are developing some real strength in a number of positions," Robinson said. "We also have a good recent record of beginning games well. But it's about winning, ultimately. It's all very well testing opponents, but you have to find a way over the line." England will be sorely tested. Can they stop the Scots finishing whatever it is they start? Recent Murrayfield history suggests not, but as Peter Brown demonstrated in his inimitable way, history isn't all it's cracked up to be.
* Scotland A showed their senior counterparts the way as they emphatically beat England Saxons 35-0 in Galashiels last night, Duncan Weir getting 20 points.
Key confrontations: Where the battle will be won or lost
Max Evans v Chris Ashton
Scotland have precious few backs who can trip the light fantastic, but Evans has footwork to die for and poses a try-scoring threat. Ashton is rarely less than threatening, but he has been distracted by squabbles at club level and disciplinary hassles. If he is not tuned in, the Scot will capitalise.Sean Lamont v Brad Barritt
Barritt is likely to occupy the inside centre position in defence, so it will be down to the debutant to sort out the powerful Lamont, who gives his side much of their go-forward in the loose. The Scot may be something of a one-trick pony, but Barritt is saddled with a serious responsibility.
Euan Murray v Alex Corbisiero
Murray never plays on Sundays; Corbisiero never seems to play 80 minutes. Between them, they make one fabulous front-row mystery. Not so long ago, the Scot was the most destructive tight-head prop in Europe, but his star has faded. If Corbisiero betters him, England will have themselves a platform.
Great Scots: Three maulings at Murrayfield
1986 Scotland 33 England 6
A defeat of record proportions for the visitors, who were roughed up early by the Scottish No 8 John Beattie before being split wide open by the brilliant half-backs Roy Laidlaw and John Rutherford. Demolition, writ large.
2000 Scotland 19 England 13
Grand Slam misery. Clive Woodward's future world champions arrived in Edinburgh with a full house of Six Nations victories within reach, but lost themselves in a tactical fog and conceded the decisive try to Duncan Hodge. Happy, they were not.
2008 Scotland 15 England 9
The game that effectively ended Brian Ashton's tenure as England coach. No tries were scored but plenty of points were made, most of them by the cussed, workaholic Scottish forwards. Jonny Wilkinson was dropped for the following game.
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