The verbal barbs may have been left to Lewis Ludlam and Sam Johnson in the days leading up to the Calcutta Cup on Saturday, but England are confident their actions will do all the talking to provide a much-needed response against Scotland. Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell declined to go on the verbal offensive after the former’s team announcement, and yet both insisted they have seen the right signs in training this week that suggests there will be no repeat of last weekend’s first-half debacle against France.
But then they would say that, wouldn’t they? Had either seen the signs this week that England were on course for another hiding, it would have been the rugby revelation of the century to come out and tell the world – and more importantly the Scottish – that they weren’t feeling it. All we can do is take them at their word, that the pain from last weekend will be used as a catalyst for a more familiar performance of what is expected from this team.
“You do tend to have a bit more of a look at yourself after a loss,” said Farrell. “It allows you to be a bit more open, I would say. We have done that. We have been open. We have said where we want to improve and I would expect us to not just talk about it but do it and I think we have stepped up a notch in training, and that is exciting when you are preparing for a big Test match.”
Make no mistake, this is a big Test match. England’s 10-match unbeaten streak between 2009 and 2017 against their oldest rivals has long been consigned to history, given where Scotland have been able to elevate their game to under Gregor Townsend – particularly when it comes to this fixture. The 2017 Twickenham demolition, a 61-21 rout in favour of the home side, felt like the perfect summary of where this once famous rivalry had descended to. But that loss lit something deep within the Scots, a fire built on hate and history that from nowhere has the hosts bidding for a third consecutive Calcutta Cup retention. Scotland have long looked over the border with envious eyes at the riches and talent pool that the Rugby Football Union has at its disposal – though that may no longer be the case after the Scottish Rugby Union’s chief executive Mark Dobson eye-watering £933,000 salary was revealed last month – and the animosity that exists between the two nations on a sporting level is alive and well in rugby union.
However, does that feeling flow both ways? Jones believes that rather than use the well-documented history of war, invasion, eviction and independence between the two countries, his squad will draw instead upon the more recent results that have revived this rugby rivalry. Under Jones, England have won two and lost one before last season’s stunning 38-38 draw, which under no uncertain terms felt as deflating as a defeat for the Twickenham faithful given England blew a 31-0 lead, and the head coach believes those games will go a long way to shaping Saturday’s affair in relation to how each team uses them.
“What I do find with young players these days is that history is not as important to them because they don’t relate to those days,” said Jones. “You can touch on it and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. We have certainly looked at it and used it when we feel it is going to be advantageous for the players to get the right mindset for the game.
“I think that is definitely a factor in the game. They have been so up and down over the last four years against Scotland. We had the tight win up there in the first year, second year we scored a lot of points, third year we played poorly. The fourth year it was like Twenty20 cricket at half-time and we let them back in the game and then had a remarkable last 10 minutes to draw the game.”
If that is the mental battle, the physical battle will be just as intriguing. England were left baffled two years ago when Scotland’s breakdown prowess negated the overwhelming possession they secured, which allowed Townsend’s side to play their trademark expansive style to full effect – Finn Russell may not be at Murrayfield this weekend but the memory of his beautiful pass to Huw Jones in 2018 will live on for some time yet.
In an effort to combat that advantage, Jones has made two moves. The first is to drop Courtney Lawes to the bench and install Lewis Ludlam on the blindside, giving England three natural flankers in the back-row alongside ‘Kamikaze Kids’ Sam Underhill and Tom Curry – who continues in the unfamiliar No 8 shirt. The second move is to load the bench with forwards, so much so that Ollie Devoto is the only cover for the outside backs. Front-rowers Ellis Genge, debutant Tom Dunn and Will Stuart are joined by not one lock but two in Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury, with another uncapped player in Ben Earl providing the back-row cover. It’s clear that to stop Scotland from stealing and slowing the ball, England will attempt to bludgeon them off it – just like South Africa did to them in the World Cup final.
How did the Springboks do it? By sending on an all-new tight-five to the one that started the match.
“When you have got the bench that we have, whatever time they come on you are expecting a big impact,” said George Ford, England’s other leading voice within the squad alongside Farrell. “If you are on the field and see these guys running on, it gives you a lift. You think ‘Here we go again, let’s go up to another level’. We have got some brilliant, powerful, fresh legs coming on and we can impose that game-plan even more at 50, 60 minutes.”
If it backfires, the fingers will point at Jones once more. It has been his decision to omit a natural No 8 in the hope that Curry can make the transition, to make unexpected changes to his starting line-up, to drop regular first-choice scrum-half Ben Youngs I favour of Willi Heinz and to load the bench with forwards in the hope that his backs avoid injury. If it pays off, England can breathe easy in the knowledge that the Murrayfield nightmare is over.