England coach Eddie Jones has questioned Scotland’s ability to handle the “pressure of expectation” in this year’s Six Nations Championship.
Scotland are considered to have their best chance in years to contend for the title after three wins in the competition last year, away and home victories over Australia in the autumn and a rousing performance in a narrow loss to the world champion All Blacks in November.
At yesterday’s official launch of the newly-sponsored NatWest Six Nations in London, Jones was up to his usual tricks, playing down the chances England’s search for a third championship in a row and instead building up the pretenders to the crown.
“They’re big darlings aren’t they?” said the Aussie when asked if the Scots were genuine contenders this year. “How excited do people get when the ball goes from side to side with Scotland? Murrayfield grows an extra 10,000 people. But to play that under the pressure of expectation is a different question to put to the team.”
Scotland host England in the Calcutta Cup clash at BT Murrayfield in the third round of the tournament on February 24. It is Gregor Townsend’s first Six Nations in charge and his side will be looking to avenge a record 61-21 loss at Twickenham, which was a rare low spot of last year.
“They’ve got a great young coach. Bright guy Gregor, eh?” continued Jones. “Makes me feel like it might be time to retire when you’ve got a good young coach like that coming through, and he’s got them playing well. But, again, it’s different when you go in as underdogs than when you go in expected to win, and play with that panache.”
Scotland open the tournament in Wales a week on Saturday before successive home games against France and England. Calcutta Cup encounters always carry spice but there could be an extra pinch added if Stirling-born Gary Graham was to turn out against the land of his birth.
The Newcastle flanker, who is the son of former Scotland prop George, has been called up by Jones and the England coach was asked if the 25-year-old was close to being capped, and if Townsend had been in touch with him over the issue.
“Not sure about the second question because he’s English qualified, so my job as the England coach is to pick the best players who are English qualified,” said Jones.
“It’s not my job to play politics between countries. What’s impressed me about him is he’s a tough bugger. He’s hard and that’s the sort of players we want.
“He’s not afraid to put his head over the ball, he’s a good defensive player and he’s a player I think that can keep improving.”
Townsend is hopeful that lock Richie Gray will be available for the Six Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff a week on Saturday.
The experienced 65-times capped forward’s return from a long-term back injury has been stalled by a fresh setback but Townsend said: “He hasn’t trained this week because he’s got a calf issue, so we’re just monitoring that at the moment.
“Yeah [he’s still in with a shout]. We’ll get more indication at the weekend. He’s back with Toulouse this week.”
Townsend reported that Glasgow skipper Ryan Wilson, who has been sidelined by an ankle injury, has “trained fully this week” and that he was awaiting an update on the back-rower’s progress.
Centre Alex Dunbar joined up with the Scotland camp back in Edinburgh after suffering a head knock in Glasgow’s game against Exeter. A clearer picture on his return to play situation will be known at the end of the week.
Scrum-half Greig Laidlaw, who had a six-minute comeback for Clermont Auvergne at the weekend, has the “all clear” and is expected to play again against Montpellier on Sunday.