Old foes set for last chance saloon
March 12, 2010
Flanker Joe Worsley returns to the England line-up for the clash with Scotland at Murrayfield © Getty Images
The oldest Test rivalry in the world will spark back into life at Murrayfield on Saturday with England and Scotland set to go head-to-head for the Calcutta Cup.
England's dreams of a Six Nations Grand Slam were ended by Ireland at Twickenham a fortnight ago but they remain in the hunt for this year's Championship thanks to their earlier victories over Wales and Italy. In contrast, Scotland are currently propping up the table and on course for the wooden spoon having been dismantled by France and stunned by Wales before suffering more heartbreak at the hands of Italy.
The defeat to Ireland once again highlighted England's creative shortcomings and stripped of the gloss offered by a favourable result the side looks increasingly vulnerable. The Scots have had no such security blanket to ward off their critics and despite showing promise against the French and being denied victory by a cruel twist of fate in Cardiff they slumped to a one-dimensional low in Rome.
The pressure is mounting on both sides to stop the rot with Scotland staring at their third wooden spoon since the Championship was expanded in 2000 while defeat would represent a further step back for England. The Scots may have been well beaten when the two sides met at Twickenham last year but they are a different proposition at home where they have seen off England on the last two occasions. Another fascinating element is the presence of Andy Robinson. The former England coach took charge of the Scots last year and will go up against his former charges for the first time on Saturday.
England had more than their fair share of possession and territory against the Irish but were woefully short of ideas with the ball in hand - a glaring inadequacy that has plagued their campaign. But England manager Martin Johnson refuses to buckle under a barrage of criticism and has handed his players yet another chance to redeem themselves. But with the likes of mobile forward Courtney Lawes and the electric Ben Foden poised on the bench it appears some players are living on borrowed time.
In a surprise move Johnson has dropped openside Lewis Moody in favour of the more physical presence of Joe Worsley. Moody can rightly feel hard done by to have suffered the ignominy of a demotion having done little wrong since returning to the international stage last year. Johnson insists the Bath-bound flanker has not been dropped with Worsley's better defensive game the preferred option in anticipation of a brutal battle up front.
Louis Deacon starts at lock in the place of the injured Simon Shaw, having replaced the veteran against Ireland, but there remain concerns that he is too similar to his captain and second-row partner Steve Borthwick. Somewhat surprisingly following their latest impotent display, or not considering Johnson's questionable faith, the backline remains unchanged with Delon Armitage holding off the challenge of Foden at fullback. Fly-half Jonny Wilkinson appears to have ridden out his own personal storm and although he showed more industry against the Irish he was still unable to inspire those around him. The centre pairing of Riki Flutey and Mathew Tait was largely ineffective last time out while the back three of Ugo Monye, Mark Cueto and Armitage suffered from the same creative shortcomings.
Johnson called his latest selection the toughest of his 18 month tenure which suggests he is not seeing the same thing the rest of us are, because then it would be easy to acknowledge the need for change. Three matches in and there are growing concerns about England's direction but Johnson will not be moved or tempted into taking a calculated gamble. However, another repeat performance and his next selection meeting will be easy, with the axe surely set to fall.
The Scots rarely need a reason to raise their game against England but the manner of their defeat to Italy in Rome will surely serve to inspire the home side on Saturday. That Stadio Flaminio loss was littered with missed opportunities and was a huge setback for a team that had played so well yet tasted defeat to Wales. With the hope of creating a more ruthless display, Robinson has reshuffled his backline Nick de Luca recalled at outside-centre with Max Evans shifting to the wing in place of Ulster's Simon Danielli.
Unsurprisingly Robinson has retained his pack that will once again include the formidable back-row trio of Kelly Brown, John Barclay and Johnnie Beattie. They have seen little reward for their outstanding endeavours in the Championship with Barclay in particular a star performer. Fly-half Dan Parks has been the major beneficiary of their exploits and if he is able to sharpen his kicking game they will ask some serious questions of England's defence that Robinson believes contains some weak links.
Robinson has also urged referee Marius Jonker to be wary of England's tactics in the belief that they use illegal blockers - a claim since dismissed by Borthwick - but it could be the South African official who has the greatest say in this game. Jonker took charge of the infamous 72-65 Super 14 clash between the Chiefs and the Lions last month and although that was somewhat of a freak result the directives in play in the southern hemisphere could have some bearing on the result here should he take a similar line at Murrayfield.
England have failed to score a try on their last two visits to Murrayfield, a fact surely not lost on Johnson whose side have found it so hard to cross the whitewash of late. In contrast the Scots have not wanted for scoring opportunities - they have just lacked the ability to finish them. Whoever stumbles upon the answer to their woes first is likely to steal some priceless momentum in this fixture and perhaps the game itself.
Scotland: H Southwell (Stade Francais); S Lamont (Scarlets), N De Luca (Edinburgh), G Morrison (Glasgow), M Evans (Glasgow); D Parks (Glasgow), C Cusiter (Glasgow, capt); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), E Murray (Northampton); J Hamilton (Edinburgh), A Kellock (Glasgow); K Brown (Glasgow), J Barclay (Glasgow), J Beattie (Glasgow)
Replacements: S Lawson (Gloucester), G Cross (Edinburgh), N Hines (Leinster), A MacDonald (Edinburgh), R Lawson (Gloucester), P Godman (Edinburgh), S Danielli (Ulster)
England: D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale), M Tait (Sale), R Flutey (Brive), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester); L Deacon (Leicester), S Borthwick (Saracens, captain); J Haskell (Stade Francais), J Worsley (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: S Thompson (Brive), D Wilson (Bath), C Lawes (Northampton), L Moody (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton)
Referee: Marius Jonker (SA)
Assistant referees: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ire), Carlo Damasco (Ita)
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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