Murrayfield, wet weather, a half-baked Scotland team, a chill wind of resignation blowing from the highlands to the border country - this combination of ingredients proved so indigestible to English systems four years ago that Lawrence Dallaglio and company lost all stomach for the fight. Yet if this evening's resumption of the oldest rivalry in rugby features the self-same components, albeit in slightly different measures, it is inconceivable that the similarities will stretch sufficiently to include the end product. The world champions expect to win this game, and win it well.
Sir Clive Woodward did not seem remotely concerned about this piece of Calcutta Cup business when he picked over the prospects yesterday. Asked if the 19-13 defeat in 2000 still gave him nightmares, the coach replied: "I don't have nightmares about anything." He was not spinning a yarn. Six and a half years into his job, Woodward has just about perfected the art of controlling the controllables, leaving only the imponderables to chance. And he sees no earthly point in pondering imponderables.
He was, however, more than a little surprised at the sopping state of the Murrayfield playing surface. The England party visited the stadium yesterday morning and were under the impression that the pitch was rather wetter than recent rainfall figures might have suggested. "If I had my way, we'd play all our matches indoors, with the roof closed," said Woodward, who believes his side's performances reflect the conditions. "We're told the pitch is wet because of melting frost. That's what frost does, I suppose. Fortunately, we're also told that the forecast is good."
Woodward stopped short of accusing the Scots of watering the pitch for their own nefarious purposes, but that did not stop the hosts issuing a statement defending their groundsmanship. "International teams the world over are satisfied with the playing surface at Murrayfield," a miffed spokesman for the Scottish Rugby Union said. "We have prepared the pitch for this game as we would prepare it for any other."
Given the contrasting states of the two teams, the Scots would have been forgiven for damming up the Water of Leith and diverting it straight through the favourites' dressing-room. Their back division is so unfamiliar that the visitors would struggle to recognise Simon Webster, Tom Philip and Chris Cusiter if they hitched a lift to the stadium on the England bus, and while Scotland's pack is one of the most experienced in the world, with more than 300 caps between them, they are faced with perhaps the tallest set of forwards ever to take the international field. Only Trevor Woodman, the loose-head prop from Gloucester, is under 6ft 2in.
That appears to give England a better than even chance of dominating the line-out, which happens to be the Scots' principle sphere of expertise. If Danny Grewcock, Ben Kay and the new beanpole from Sale, Chris Jones, can slam the door on Scott Murray and Simon Taylor, it is difficult to identify an area from which the outsiders might launch a meaningful attack. No doubt the home side will come up with something - Matt Williams, their Australian coach, is an inventive sort - but as England hold clear advantages virtually everywhere else, that something will have to be tinged with genius.
If the Calcutta Cup holders are suspicious of one player in particular, it is Cameron Mather, the angular blond flanker from Glasgow who, like some rugby-playing worker ant, tackles approximately 30 times his own bodyweight. Four years ago, Martin Leslie produced the defensive performance of his life to lay the foundations for a famous Scottish victory; Mather is capable of matching Leslie, and more. Assuming Scotland go low rather than high in an attempt to expose Jones in all his international naïvety, the more mature operators in the England pack must be prepared for an intense firefight at the breakdown.
But there is more to a game of rugby than a handful of turnovers in and around the tackle, and in terms of the set-pieces, the kicking strategies and the cutting edge in attack, England hold all the cards that count. As Tom Smith, that arch-realist from the Northampton club who anchored the Lions' scrummage in South Africa in 1997 and again in Australia in 2001, said yesterday: "We can't rely on wet conditions, or on English complacency, or on them coming here and playing badly. To compete, we must up our own performance."
And if Scotland raise their game by 50 per cent from last week, when they were well beaten in Cardiff, they will still fall short by two or three scores. The bookmakers in Edinburgh are talking of an English victory in the region of 35 points, and while that might be over-spicing the haggis just a little, they are on the right lines.Reuse content