Scottish flaw that could be fatal

FIVE NATIONS Jonathan Davies believes the struggle will be decided by a lack of pace in the back division
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The Independent Online
IF ENGLAND have done their homework - and there's something very unprofessional about them if they haven't - they will approach their big challenge next Saturday with much more confidence than people would expect on the evidence of the Five Nations' Championship so far.

I am aware that whatever judgement you make about Scotland's chances of beating England and winning the Grand Slam you would be foolish not to take into consideration the tremendous amount of passion they will bring to the game and the intimidating atmosphere their supporters will create.

But I believe the English will sneak an unexpected victory despite all their previous problems. On the face of it, the game will be a contest between Scotland's flair and aggression and England's strength and power and efficiency in the forwards. I suspect, however, that there will be more to it than that.

The Scots' performance against Wales may prove to have been the beginning of their downfall. The narrow win set up their Grand Slam chance but the more you examine the video the more you see a flaw that the English must have noticed if they've got their wits about them.

The Scots played with the same intensity and adventure against Wales as against the Irish and French. But they did not look as irresistible, and every look at the video proves it was Welsh naivety that had the biggest bearing on the result.

The Scottish strengths are plain to see. They have a reliable front five and an exceptionally good back row, especially the wing forwards. Rob Wainwright and Ian Smith have been at the heart of their success and have matched up brilliantly with the half-back partnership of Bryan Redpath and Gregor Townsend. This midfield unit has been an eye-opener with its swift pace and thought. Exciting to watch and difficult to play against.

Yet the more you look at the Scots' back line the more you realise it is seriously under-paced. The backs have lived off their midfield but haven't had a massive amount to contribute. This is why Wales cut them up so often: Ieuan Evans, Justin Thomas and Wayne Proctor were yards too quick.

Lack of pace at the back is a worrying flaw in any team and England must have noticed it. What they intend to do about it could contain the key to the game. So far, England have not given the impression that they are committed to a single strategy. They talked about expansive rugby but when it came to the crunch they held back. Their whole approach had been a contradiction.

Picking Dean Richards was, at least, a clear statement. They intend to keep it tight, dominate the set-pieces and cut down on loose ball. They know that Ian Smith will clean up anything that's hanging about and they will prime their game to cut down his opportunities.

They also have a clear idea what Scotland will do because the Scots don't have any secrets. They are committed to a fast, rucking game which has served them well but don't seem to have any variations. Certainly, they don't have the attributes for a tight, mauling confrontation. If England can tie them up and use that sort of game as a platform I can see trouble for them.

England must move quickly off the set-pieces, which places a big responsibility on Lawrence Dallaglio. I think Dallaglio has what it takes to be a world- class openside flanker and this game is an opportune time for him to prove it. He came off second best to Gwyn Jones at Twickenham and now he has to match himself against Ian Smith. If he can consistently support the ball carrier and realise that sometimes it is the cleverest and not the quickest who succeeds, Dallaglio can be a vital player at Murrayfield.

Up to now, England have failed to realise that an expansive approach has to grow on a team slowly. You don't change a juggernaut to a sports car overnight. But if they can unleash the superiority of their backs, Scotland will struggle. Never mind their pace on the wings; the English have a central force of Will Carling, Jeremy Guscott and Mike Catt that can cut teams to shreds.

There is no doubt England will attempt to impose their strength and set up early domination. If they are determined to use that foundation as a platform to launch their long-frustrated backs I don't think Scotland will be able to cope.