Twenty years on from the "grudge match" – not so much a game of rugby as a blazing expression of historical-cultural-political hostility in which the divisive figure of Margaret Thatcher, the iniquities of the poll tax and the perceived public-school swagger of a team led by Will Carling gave 15 supercharged Scots the excuse they needed to kick some English butt – there is something in the Murrayfield air once again.
If the combination of Gordon Brown, quantitative easing and Steve Borthwick is not quite as objectionable to Scottish minds, the place is still bristling with aggressive intent.
It is, therefore, a little disconcerting to think that this evening's Calcutta Cup contest between a fragile Scotland searching desperately for a win to jump-start their Six Nations campaign and a leaden England urgently seeking a way of out their tactical straitjacket, might easily be decided by Marius Jonker, a referee from the South African veld and Dan Parks, an outside-half from the north shore of Sydney. So much for Bannockburn, "Braveheart" and all the rest of it.
According to Andy Robinson, an Englishman of West Country origins whose patriotic devotions must play second fiddle to his professional duties as coach of the Scotland team, Jonker will be a crucial protagonist. "One of the key aspects will be our ability to win quick ball from the breakdown and that means the refereeing getting the tackler out of the way," Robinson said. "We see it all the time: players coming in from the side, tacklers lying around on the floor. Nothing in rugby is accidental; and it is either coached or player-led. All I want is a referee who applies the law.
"Here, we have an official who we know can be really hot on making the tackler roll away. That's exactly what we want to see. Sometimes, referees say things before a game and then fail to deliver. I think Marius will be slightly different. I certainly hope he is, because we want a genuine contest for the loose ball."
If Jonker plays it the way Robinson wants and expects, the Scots are well equipped to give England a serious hurry-up in the loose. John Barclay, Johnnie Beattie and Kelly Brown have been the pick of the back-row units in this season's tournament, even though Robinson would like to see better decision-making from Barclay and more work off the ball from the gifted but spasmodic Beattie. If, through their pace and mobility, they gain the upper hand against the heavy-duty English trio of James Haskell, Joe Worsley and Nick Easter, the accurate kicking game of Parks will come into its own.
The last time England beat the Scots in genuinely comfortable fashion, at Twickenham in 2007, the points-laden return of Jonny Wilkinson to national colours overshadowed the precision of Parks' first-half punting, which left the home full-back Jason Robinson with nothing more to show for his defensive positioning than handfuls of fresh air. Wilkinson is still the box-office draw – something very strange will have to happen if Parks (below) is to emerge from this game with more column inches – but it is possible to envisage Parks as the match-winner.
Worsley, recalled ahead of Lewis Moody, is the man charged with closing down Parks from scrum and line-out. During his days as England coach, Robinson always picked Worsley for Six Nations duty, and yesterday he was heard extolling the long-serving Wasp's principal virtues of destructive tackling and powerful ball-carrying. But Robinson selected Worsley as a blindside flanker, not a specialist No 7. Privately, the Scots believe Moody would have been better suited to neutralising Parks.
Neither team can afford to lose this game. Scotland, bottom of the table after three consecutive defeats, travel to Ireland for next week's finale, and Croke Park is no place to go in seek of a season-saving victory. England will be on the road themselves, for a meeting with France in Paris. Assuming Marc Lièvremont's side maintain their 100 per cent record against Italy tomorrow – in truth, the notion of an Azzurri win stretches the imagination to breaking point – a French team with the whiff of a Grand Slam in their nostrils will take an awful lot of stopping.
Defeat today will put England on a very long road indeed – one that might well see them lose another four matches before finding a way to win one. "Silencing a hostile crowd: that's what it's about for us," their manager, Martin Johnson, said before heading north. "The opposition will raise themselves and we'll need energy, urgency and passion. We can't come second in those areas. There will be tension and ferocity, but we'll have to adapt. It will be a tough evening if we lose. There, does that give you your headline?"
There will be headlines galore, all gory, if things go wrong for Johnson. Robinson found himself on the wrong side of the public prints after losing here with England in 2006, and his successor, Brian Ashton, was treated even more brutally in defeat two years later. England have the close-quarter expertise to eke out a win that will ease the pressure on the back-room staff. There again, far better red-rose sides than this one have left these parts with plenty of nothing.
Scots steal a slow march 20 years ago
Scotland have put the kybosh on England three times in the last decade, but their most celebrated post-war Murrayfield victory was in the Grand Slam match of 1990, when David Sole led his team onto the field with a "slow march" and left it on the shoulders of supporters who invaded the pitch at the end. If England were the outstanding side that year the Scots tackled their way under the visitors' skins and won 13-7.Reuse content