New chapter for Auld Enemies
September 27, 2011
Chris Ashton and England found their try-scoring form against Romania © Getty Images
England's showdown with Scotland this weekend may appear to have a familiar look to it but this will be no ordinary encounter.
Anglo-Scottish relations may be tested every year in the name of the Six Nations but they have only met once before on the Rugby World Cup stage with England claiming a narrow 9-6 win in the 1991 semi-finals - a game best remembered for a missed kick from Scotland's Gavin Hastings. Twenty years on they will go toe-to-toe once again 12,000 miles from home in a crunch pool clash that may as well be a final - such are the riches awaiting the winner.
A win for England will secure top spot in Pool B and with it a favourable draw in the knock-out stages. As things stand, their reward will be a quarter-final showdown with France and a semi-final date with either Ireland or Wales. With due respect to their geographic neighbours, none of those potential match-ups will cause sleepless nights and while by no means an easy ride, it is a course of action that will hold no fear. Scotland can also book a similar passage with a victory that denies England a bonus point but there is another factor in this equation in the form of Argentina who could also take out the pool title.
Of course, the runner-up spot will also offer a quarter-final berth but on the side of the draw that looks set to have a significant southern hemisphere flavour thanks to the varying fortunes of hosts New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
Neutrals may argue that if you want to lay claim to title of the best side in the world then you need to have beaten any other team packing a punch but it does not work that way and history does not care for such detail. Few north of the equator will care that England did not play New Zealand on their way to the 2003 crown or that South Africa did not tackle either of their Tri-Nations rivals before picking up the Webb Ellis trophy four years later. The record books list the names of winners not how easy they had it on the way to glory.
The stage is set at Eden Park for what will no doubt be an enthralling battle but there are no such guarantees when it comes to quality. The pattern of the '91 clash may well be repeated given what is at stake along with the fact that the last two meetings of these sides have mustered just one try. One of those games was an instantly forgettable clash at Murrayfield which was an alarmingly bad advert for the game. The most recent clash in this year's Six Nations was also lacking in sparkle but at least produced one try.
Another factor that threatens to put a dampener on proceedings is the weather. England have had the 'luxury' of playing their opening three games in the same venue in Dunedin but as a result are yet to tackle the elements at the same time as their opposition. Rain is forecast for Auckland in the coming days and even if it relents in time for the game, the evening kick off will ensure a dewy ball at least. Such conditions will affect every aspect of the game although you wonder if England's place-kicking can get much worse having contributed to a woeful 47% success rate during their stay at the Otago Stadium.
On a positive note, England have at least shown a refreshing cutting edge of late and that commitment to an expansive game has brought them 17 tries with 10 of those coming in their last outing against Romania. In contrast, a determined but blunt Scotland attack has notched just four five-pointers and it is that lack of firepower that could cost them especially in the face of England's water-tight defence that has leaked just one try in the tournament so far and nine tries in their eight outings this year.
Scotland's one trump card may be their ability to mix it in the loose. The breakdown has been a concern for England and it is an area the Scots are sure to try and exploit. But England are far from a pushover and their superior set-piece is sure to lay the foundation for just as many scoring opportunities. However, if the Scotland can turn the screw in this one aspect of the game it may well reap dividends elsewhere with England's indiscipline another potential game-changer. Another high penalty count will be punished while concern over Jonny Wilkinson's form with the boot and the on-going debate over the match ball over more reason for hope.
But make no mistake, England hold the aces and as a result it will be their ability to rise to the occasion that will decide this contest. Martin Johnson's charges clearly do not lack confidence in their ability but it remains to be seen if they have the courage to stick to the expansive game plan that swept Georgia and Romania aside in successive weekends. Pressure can do strange things to a side and having had a relatively easy ride of late there is a chance that England may struggle to find the intensity that the occasion demands.
The pulsating atmosphere that surrounded their narrow victory over Argentina earlier this month is now a distant memory and while Scotland enter the clash having most recently experienced the cauldron, albeit rain-soaked, that was the Wellington Stadium for their fruitless date with the Pumas. And Andy Robinson's hopes of catching England cold rely heavily on his side's ability to recover from the emotional and physical scars of that defeat.
'The World Cup starts here' has been the catchcry of choice this week - but for one side it could just as easily be over.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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