Who is it Scotland fear most as they prepare for their win-or-bust game with England this weekend? Jonny Wilkinson perhaps? Nope. Having twice given the great red-rose goalkicker the heebie-jeebies in the recent past – Wilkinson was dropped by Brian Ashton after the Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield in 2008, and again by Martin Johnson after a similarly fraught episode last year – they believe they can deal with him. How about Ben Youngs? Not quite. Strong at half-back themselves, the Scots are losing little sleep over the threat from No 9.
Try Courtney Lawes, Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton instead. All three are relative newcomers to Test rugby, but each has left a mark: Ashton on the scoreboard, with 14 tries in 16 international outings; the other two on those opponents who have had the misfortune to enter their orbit at the wrong moment.
Andy Robinson, the head coach of Scotland, believes Lawes could become one of English rugby's fabled figures. "He times his tackles so beautifully and he hits so hard," an admiring Robinson remarked yesterday. As for the two backs, the defence strategist Graham Steadman – another Englishman buried deep in the Scottish system – has his views. As a professional 13-a-sider who came to the union code after successful playing and coaching careers with Castleford and Great Britain, he first picked up on Ashton during the wing's early league days in the Wigan academy and feels he understands the things that make him tick. Tuilagi is a more recent interest, but Steadman is taking a crash-course on the subject.
"Ashton was always a talent: his rugby comes naturally to him," Steadman said. "The way he's developed his game in union is a credit both to him and to the England set-up, and he's firing on all cylinders at the moment. Confidence is a big thing with him, though: when we played England at Twickenham last March there were certain aspects to his game we felt we could nullify. Nothing's changed. Tuilagi? We'll pay him some attention. He's still a little raw but he backs himself, and he's certainly a threat when he's given quick ball and gets up a head of steam. We'll need to be on top of him."
Steadman also accepts his players will need to be on top of things in the application department. The reason Scotland are where they are right now – needing victory to avoid an early flight home, rather than thinking about a seventh consecutive World Cup quarter-final – is simple: they conceded a try to Argentina late in last Sunday's gripping game in Wellington that would have propelled every defence coach in Christendom into an advanced state of apoplexy.
"It was," Steadman said of Lucas Amorosino's right-wing finish, "a soft try: very, very disappointing. According to my detail, there were six separate errors involved, and they were down to lapses of concentration – the product of a false mindset that at 12-6, we had the game won. The players have been called to account and they've been honest enough to put their hands up. Now, we move on in the knowledge that it can't happen again. And it won't. We can't give England a free play and let them execute the way we let the Pumas.
"They will bring their power game with them this weekend and if their forwards establish a good platform and get good go-forward, people like Ashton and Tuilagi will come into play. But we've highlighted a number of areas and we feel we can be direct against them. I'm not being disrespectful to the Romanians, but England won't find that sort of space against us."
If this turns out to be the case, the England full-back Ben Foden may have to wait a little longer for an opportunity to free himself from the shackles and start running freely again. It has been a while. While Ashton, his great friend and ally at Northampton, has put a longish lean spell behind him, Foden's struggles continue. He is not performing especially badly, but with Delon Armitage – expected to feature on the left wing this weekend – back in the affections of manager Martin Johnson, "not bad" is unlikely to remain good enough.
"I hope it's just a matter of time before things really start to fly," Foden said. "Perhaps this game will suit me because there will be a little bit more structure and I can pick my moments to come into the game. The Romania and Georgia matches were looser and I wasn't able to read where the ball was going, where the breaks were going. That's more of an Ashton speciality. The management have shown a lot of confidence in me: they're quick to tell me what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong, what they enjoy about me, what they want me to bring to the table. Hopefully I can keep doing those things. I know there is a lot still to work on, but I think they like the fact that I know it."
There was a good deal of self-assessment in Foden's address yesterday, a good deal of honesty. By comparison, Tuilagi just kept on rolling, like the human bowling ball he so closely resembles. Asked about the particular threat posed by Scotland, he thought for a long time before not answering. He was equally non-committal on the subject of individual Scottish players, to the extent that it was not entirely apparent he had heard of any of them.
He was more engaged when asked about events back at Leicester, where his clubmates are beating themselves up over conceding 50 points to Saracens on home turf last weekend. "There'll be a five-minute meeting, then they'll get out on the training field and smash each other," he predicted. "Love it." You have to say this for Tuilagi: he likes to keep things simple.Reuse content