Entering the unknown
February 2, 2012
ESPN's Ben Kay believes England skipper Chris Robshaw has reason to relish his side's trip to Murrayfield © Getty Images
England enter a new era against Scotland on Saturday and it is so difficult to the predict how they will fare.
Stuart Lancaster's selection was pretty much what we all expected but still offers plenty of reason to be excited with the inclusion of Brad Barritt particularly pleasing. He may not have got his shot had Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi been fit, and he probably knows that, but he'll also be aware that he's got a couple of weeks to cement the position. He's a quality player, a really good defender and has no problem breaking the gain line in the Premiership but the question is whether he can re-produce that kind of form in the international arena. The presence of his Saracens team-mates Owen Farrell and Charlie Hodgson around him will be a great help and if they can click then it will make it very difficult for Lancaster as and when Manu comes back.
I'm also a fan of Phil Dowson and delighted he has been given his chance to impress. He can be an exceptional player and while he had an inconsistent season last year I don't think the England set-up helped him. He was always the one held back as the extra man to cover for any late injuries and was then forced to go back to Northampton and try to slot in at late notice which can be very difficult. He has now earned his chance to stay in the England camp and I hope he makes the most of it.
The side will be led by Chris Robshaw and while some may doubt his temperament, I am convinced he can handle the pressure of the occasion. I like him because he is a 'follow me' type of captain which is ideal when you are going somewhere like Murrayfield. He'll talk when he needs to talk but it is not all about inspirational talks, it's about inspirational play and being the man everyone wants to follow. I think he'll do a good job, it will be tough for him, but you just hope he feeds off the occasion and it brings out the best in him.
Of course he will not be on his own with Lancaster stressing the important role that the team's 'leadership group' will play during not only this game but the Six Nations. The idea of a support network is nothing new - every England camp I was involved in had a leadership group - but that does not take away from its importance. People sometimes make too much of who is captain when in reality it's about decision makers on the field, about everyone knowing their job and doing their role and not worrying too much about what everyone else is doing.
However, one key responsibility is seeing that the team stick to the game plan laid down by Lancaster and his assistants. What type of game can we expect from England? I am expecting a high tempo but they will find that very difficult against Scotland who are probably the best nation in the world at slowing the ball down at the breakdown. There will obviously be that massive Saracens influence with Hodgson, Barritt, Farrell and David Strettle and assistant coach Andy Farrell, but they haven't exactly set the world alight in terms of attacking play this year. They have been pragmatic, they get the job done and they play the percentages really well so I expect a very strong kicking game aimed at pinning Scotland back on their own patch.
It's probably the first time England have gone into a game like this as underdogs and a lot will depend on how Scotland react to being favourites or at least on a level par to their rivals. Usually when England go to Murrayfield they are expected to win and Scotland take full advantage by playing the percentages and making it tough in every area of the game. England can do the same and put the pressure on the Scots and say 'Come and beat us'. It's quite a nice situation for a young team to be in and that pressure could see Scotland start to question themselves.
Murrayfield is where I made my Six Nations bow and England's new faces can expect an unforgettable experience. The drive from the hotel to the stadium leaves you under no illusion as to what they think of the English and there are usually lots of people in kilts waving at you - but not with all their fingers!
It's one of the great places to play and always an edgy encounter. It is such a difficult game to call and England will need a little luck with a lot hanging on their ability to deliver. The Six Nations is all about momentum and England may find that hard to come by against two unfancied sides who will be thinking that this is their chance to take England down. Italy in particular will be smelling blood and that first game at the Stadio Olimpico is shaping as an eye-opener in more ways than one.
But if England can get through those first two games intact then they will be looking good for the visit of Wales. Another really tough encounter awaits in France regardless of what happens before then. If they manage to pull that off then who knows what could be at stake come the Ireland game at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day.
But don't expect a Grand Slam by England - or anyone else for that matter. This year's Six Nations is shaping up as the most difficult to predict that I can remember and may well be decided by points difference. Will France have a World Cup hangover? It happened to us in '07 after we reached the final in France. We came back and everyone forgot about all our previous problems and expected too much of us. France may now have a better coach and may be in better shape than we were, but people could well be making a mistake if they are expecting them to walk it.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a former England international and currently a co-commentator for ESPN
The latest Week in Pictures takes in the Top 14, Super Rugby and the Aviva Premiership with fireworks and monsters both featuring
Firdose Moonda looks at the moves towards greater integration within South African rugby ... and what the future holds
It is 100 years this week since the last international match played in Europe before the outbreak of World War One. Rewind remembers the fixture's longest-living survivor
Martin Gillingham looks ahead to what he believes is the most remarkable ever climax to the league phase of the Top 14