England and Scotland look to end on a high
March 19, 2009
Mike Blair lifts the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield in 2008 © Getty Images
The verbal sparring has started, the old grievances have been aired and the days are ticking down. England v Scotland, the oldest fixture in the rugby calendar, is showing no signs of mellowing in its old age.
The Twickenham faithful will pack in on Saturday for one of the great grudge matches in world rugby with a good deal of optimism following their side's 34-10 win over France, but should not expect everything to go their way this weekend.
Martin Johnson's side showed vast improvement in attack and in the discipline stakes last time out but Scotland will have a genuine fire in their bellies as they look to defend the Calcutta Cup and win at Twickenham for the first time in 26 years. The Scots may be languishing in fifth place in the table, their only win coming against an atrociously limited Italy, but all bets as usual are off in this fixture.
England's win over France was based on quick ball and a willingness to attack space, two things that will be more difficult against Scotland's settled pack than against Marc Lievremont's latest seemingly random collection of players.
Johnson has opted to stick with the side that saw off the French, with the superb Tom Croft retaining his place on the blindside and Toby Flood and Joe Worsley both being passed fit after injury problems sustained last weekend.
Scotland coach Frank Hadden, under mounting pressure after it was announced that he is to face a review board at the end of April, has decided to make only a single change from the side that lost out to Ireland at Murrayfield. Northampton flanker Scott Gray gets his first start since his debut four-and-a-half years ago on the openside while there was a boost for the squad with skipper Mike Blair recovering from a back injury in order to be named at scrum-half.
Scotland possess a huge pack of forwards that will have to compete hard on the floor, depriving England of the front-foot ball that allowed them free reign against France. England's discipline problem evaporated as they were left free of immediate pressure at the breakdown, something that the Scottish back-row cannot allow to happen.
For England, their focus must be on further improvement. Scotland will be confrontational and fiery and England cannot allow for a second-half lull as against France. Being 34-0 up after 42 minutes can do that to a side, but lightning rarely strikes twice and it should be a lot closer by the hour mark this weekend.
England can conceivably snatch second place in the Championship should they win and Ireland secure the Grand Slam in Cardiff, but any thoughts of an English resurgence should be shelved until after the end of the tournament. Both side have struggled for form and consistency during this tournament, and any England player carrying a sense of inflated prowess may receive a nasty wake-up call at Twickenham. Scotland's loss to Ireland produced a good deal of positives, with a lost lineout condemning them to a loss when there were times that Ireland's men were running out of ideas.
With Flood delegating the majority of the tactical running to Riki Flutey against France expect the naturalised Kiwi to face an opening barrage from Graeme Morrison while their should be plenty of pace on display from the Evans brothers and the rejuvenated England back-three of Delon Armiatge, Ugo Monye and Mark Cueto.
There will be plenty of individual battles on show, with England skipper Steve Borthwick stirring the pot ahead of the game by accusing the Scots of being poor winners, and a capacity crowd expected on a sunny spring day. The stakes are high and the winners can reflect on a morale-boosting win and another year in possession of the Indian urn.
England: D Armitage (London Irish); U Monye (Harlequins), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Flutey (Wasps), M Cueto (Sale Sharks); T Flood (Leicester), H Ellis (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), T Croft (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), J White (Leicester), J Haskell (Wasps), N Kennedy (London Irish), D Care (Harlequins), A Goode (Brive), M Tait (Sale Sharks)
Scotland: C Paterson (Edinburgh); S Danielli (Ulster), M Evans (Glasgow), G Morrison (Glasgow), T Evans (Glasgow); P Godman (Edinburgh), M Blair (Edinburgh, capt); A Dickinson (Gloucester), R Ford (Edinburgh), E Murray (Northampton), J White (Sale), J Hamilton (Edinburgh), A Strokosch (Gloucester), S Gray (Northampton), S Taylor (Stade Francais)
Replacements: D Hall (Glasgow), M Low (Glasgow), N Hines (Perpignan), K Brown (Glasgow), C Cusiter (Perpignan), N De Luca (Edinburgh), H Southwell (Edinburgh)
Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Touch judges: Christophe Berdos (France), Simon McDowell