Scotland coach Gregor Townsend must change tack if he wants to beat England

The Calcutta Cup away from home is always a tale of two emotions, hope and expectation. Scotland hopes, England expects. None of this team were born when Scotland were last victorious in West London, which is just as well as it would make them 36 years old.

Saturday, 16th March 2019, 5:30 am
Gregor Townsend issues instructions during the Scotland captains run at Twickenham
Gregor Townsend issues instructions during the Scotland captains run at Twickenham

The local All Hallows church on the Chertsey Road that runs past Twickenham was flying the St George cross proudly from its tower. It appears that even the Almighty is backing England today, not that Eddie Jones’ side require outside assistance – they already hold most of today’s trump cards.

England pack a punch in the front five, boast the best ball carrier in the modern game at No 8 and field a genuine openside in Tom Curry. He is already being likened to Richie McCaw!

The most dangerous backs are all sporting white, while such is the length of Scotland’s injury list that four of their makeshift backs share just 21 caps between them.

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The miserably lopsided history of this contest weighs a little more heavily on the visiting team’s shoulders every additional year. There is an urge to go old school and ask this team to unearth their inner David Sole or Finlay Calder but even those two illustrious warriors never won at Twickenham.

It is difficult to see where the Scots can get a toe-hold in this match, especially if they play Gregor Townsend’s favoured fast-and-furious version of rugby, but there is another way to play the game.

With Edinburgh’s front five picked en masse it will be interesting to see if the Scotland boss reverts to a more cautious game plan, based upon possession, territory and perhaps even the occasional driving maul, which the Scots have yet to deploy in any meaningful way. If nothing else, it would have the benefit of taking England by surprise and that would give the visitors a slim advantage on a day when they have all too few. Scotland’s backs are small but the inclusion of Sam Skinner in the backrow of the pack is a trade-off – a loss of mobility, an addition of muscle. Skinner is also a lineout specialist. It is possible that Townsend will turn this one on its head and look to his Edinburgh front five to beat England at their own muscular game. Kick the ball into touch and trust in the Scottish lineout to win it back.

The Scottish scrum is another area of relative strength. The front row is the one area of the team sheet where the visitors hold a small advantage in experience, with a total of 49 caps for the Dell/Nel duo against 31 for England’s pair of props.

England look better placed to benefit if the Scots stick with their ‘fastest rugby’ principles. In Elliot Daly they have England’s answer to Stuart Hogg, the versatile player growing in stature in what is still a new position. The return of Henry Slade gives the England midfield the balance it lacked against Italy and the demotion of Joe Cokanasiga tightens up England’s decision-making in defence.

Scotland can’t win it in the first 20 minutes but they can lose it, so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Ali Price and Finn Russell kick plenty in the opening exchanges in a bid for territory.

The first quarter of the match looks absolutely crucial because, if England get their tails up, there is no knowing what damage they could do, except that isn’t strictly true, because two years ago they did just that and won 61-21.

Give England a head start and the Scots will be chasing shadows all day and Scotland forwards coach Danny Wilson admitted as much at yesterday’s final press conference.

“You’re trying to come out of the blocks and take the sting out of the opposition,” said Scotland’s forwards’ coach. “Hopefully, you take away the advantage of having the crowd behind them, the atmosphere getting behind England. England have started games really well and, being absolutely honest and open, we have to start away games very well.”

That opinion was backed by Stuart McInally, who went one further and stated that a good start was predicated on just one thing.

“Starting well is mainly around defence,” claimed Scotland’s skipper. “You tend to know straight away if you are there or not, in terms of the mindset and how physical you are on the day.”

History is weighing heavily on the Scots but they can perhaps take some small comfort from 1983, the last time that they won at Twickenham. The visiting team that day was widely written off before the game, having lost all three previous matches against France, Wales and Ireland, just as today’s Scottish team have done (their one win coming against Italy).

That Twickenham record will go at some point, that much is certain, and it will almost certainly happen when the Scots are written off, when they take England by stealth, lure them into a false sense of security. It will happen on a day like today when absolutely no one predicts it. Will today be the day? No.