It would take a Scottish nationalist of the William Wallace variety to suggest that the country's rugby team are in vintage shape right now, and as the perennial underdogs' chances of beating England are slim at the best of times, this weekend's Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh has more than a touch of the nightmare scenario about it. Under such circumstances, the Scots historically put their faith in the twin pillars of Murrayfield: the stadium, and the crowd. Sadly for them, neither cuts much ice with Clive Woodward.
"We've moved on from all that," the England coach said yesterday. "Playing away from home is not quite as comfortable as playing at Twickenham, for obvious reasons, but we really don't worry about different stadia and different cities in the way people imagine. The venue is not something that should affect the outcome of a match, provided the playing surface is reasonable. Yes, it's important to start well, but that has nothing to do with taking the opposition crowd out of the game. You try to hit the ground running to take the opposing team out of the game.
"For some reason, we developed a reputation for invincibility at home and vulnerability on the road. But we haven't lost anywhere for a very long time, leaving aside the game with France in Marseilles last summer when we took on their Test side with a second team and went down by a point. We've beaten the Wallabies in Melbourne, the All Blacks in Wellington and won a World Cup on Australian soil, and we've done that by worrying about the players we are up against, not the cities we are playing in. Venues are not something we talk about." So far, so confident; the can-do spirit was oozing from every red-rose pore as Woodward and his squad departed for their afternoon flight north. The coach had kept his selectorial tinkerings to the barest minimum - Chris Jones of Sale at blind-side flanker for the injured Joe Worsley, his club-mate Alex Sanderson on the bench - and was full of the joys. He had even elected to stay smack in the middle of Edinburgh, rather than "hide away on some golf course or other". Having won the World Cup, England intend to behave like world champions.
Try as they might - and Andy Robinson, Woodward's second-in-command, talked darkly about the threat posed by the Scottish line-out - the coaching hierarchy could not conceal their astronomical level of self-belief. Robinson, far cagier than the knight of the realm sitting alongside him, banged on at length about the high-class players in Scotland's pack, from Tom Smith and Gordon Bulloch in the front row to Jason White and Simon Taylor in the loose trio, but spoke even more glowingly of the strikingly athletic Jones, who makes his first Test start on Saturday.
"Chris will roam the line-out, popping up in different places," he said. "I would say he's one of the quickest forwards to have been selected for England, but it's not simply a matter of pace. The Premiership is an unforgiving place, especially when you score the kind of tries he did in his first season at senior level. People tend to go looking for you. He has fronted up to that, and shown himself to be a tough lad." Selection issues were nowhere near as straightforward in Wales as they sifted through their options before Sunday's important game with Ireland in Dublin - an Ireland bolstered by the return of their captain, Brian O'Driscoll, at centre and the introduction of the brilliant Donncha O'Callaghan at lock. In the end, Steve Hansen and his fellow coaches opted for four changes, all of them in the pack.
Colin Charvis, the captain, will not be risked after dislocating a finger in the victory over the Scots last Saturday and spending the week on antibiotics; Jonathan Thomas, of the Neath-Swansea Ospreys, fills the gap in the back row, with Martyn Williams, of the Cardiff Blues, shouldering the burden of leadership. Robbie McBryde, the Llanelli Scarlets hooker, and Robert Sidoli, the Celtic Warriors lock, return after injury for Mefin Davies and Gareth Llewellyn respectively. The only mildly surprising development surrounded the loose-head prop position, where Iestyn Thomas, of Llanelli, was given the nod ahead of the Ospreys' Duncan Jones.
O'Driscoll's return is at the expense of Kevin Maggs - an interesting call, given Gordon D'Arcy's inexperience at this level and the fact that Ireland now have two natural outside centres, rather than the traditional one. O'Callaghan replaces Malcolm O'Kelly, who toured Australia with the Lions in 2001. "Donncha plays with a degree of abandon, and will spice up the front five," explained Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach.Reuse content