‘England have done homework on Scotland – Felix Jones has watched 1,000 lineouts’

Felix Jones chats to England's forwards during training
Felix Jones (centre) has left no stone unturned when it comes to beating Scotland - Getty Images/David Rogers

England have studied 1,000 Scotland line-outs and picked the brains of Finn Russell’s backline colleagues from Bath as part of their efforts to snap a four-year losing streak in the Calcutta Cup on Saturday.

Kevin Sinfield also issued a rallying call on Tuesday afternoon, backing George Martin to “leave a mark on somebody” at Murrayfield and warning England’s future opponents not to write off Manu Tuilagi.

Russell has been a scourge of England over recent years. The fly-half is personally unbeaten in five consecutive Six Nations games against the Auld Enemy, having missed the 2020 defeat. He has started four victories in that sequence, as well as the 38-38 draw five years ago, and conducted a 63-45 triumph for the Barbarians at Twickenham in 2018 for good measure.

Ben Spencer, Ollie Lawrence and Max Ojomoh, all of them Bath team-mates of Russell, have been enlisted by England’s coaches to shed light on the playmaker’s habits, while defence coach Felix Jones has analysed historic strike moves. As well as this fascinating strategic tussle, an element of “niggle” is inevitable as England bid for a third consecutive win to begin the Six Nations.

“We’d be daft not to speak to them [the Bath players] and ask them questions about him [Russell] – and we’d be daft not to ask them about his favourite plays,” Sinfield said.

“Felix has gone through about 1,000 lineouts that Scotland have run in the last 10 years. So the homework has been done, but are we good enough at the weekend to do the job? That’s why there is interest around this game and around Test rugby.

“There are two good teams coming together at the weekend who know a bit about each other and have done for some time. We are very respectful. We expect some niggle, but I quite like the Scots. With the [charity] work I’ve done with Doddie [Weir], the Scots have been pretty good to me and I’m looking forward to going to Murrayfield and getting an experience that I’ve not had before, in that cauldron.”

England expect Blair Kinghorn to return at full-back as part of a balanced, cohesive and dangerous Scotland backline. Duhan van der Merwe, the destructive left wing, scored two stunning tries last year as his team prevailed 29-23. Russell, though, is Scotland’s ringmaster.

Finn Russell passes the ball while off the ground
Finn Russell is Scotland's playmaker-in-chief - PA/Andrew Milligan

“The coaching team here have done their homework – and there’s been a lot of homework to do on him, by the way, he’s an outstanding guy, and a wonderful player,” Sinfield added. “We are under no illusions that at some point during the game on Saturday he’ll come up with something that is pretty special. He might come up with a number of them. Can we be good enough to negate some of that?”

Danny Care, the veteran scrum-half poised for a 99th cap, explained how Russell will challenge England’s alertness throughout what is sure to be a defining game.

“You go through his clips and you see some of his magic,” Care said. “He is a brilliant player, one of the best in the world, he tries things other people don’t dare to try and if he gets things wrong he doesn’t go into his shell, he will keep coming. We have seen that in games the last few years when he has been instrumental in beating England.

“We know how good he is; he is their lynchpin, their talisman and we have got to pitch up and defend against him. In times in the past we have been great for 75  minutes, then off for five and Van der Merwe goes and scores a try or Finn does something magical. It is going to take an 85-minute performance to win this game and he is one of the major threats we have got to respect but try and nullify.

“The big thing we’ve talked about is everyone being alive the whole time because you could be the 10th man in the defensive line and thinking you’re alright for a phase and have a blow and then the ball is coming to you.”

Reinforcements will buoy England after two tight wins over Italy and Wales, with Martin poised for a first Test since the World Cup semi-final against South Africa last October.

George Martin grabs Cobus Reinach by the collar
George Martin (centre) is not afraid to get stuck in - Getty Images/Dan Mullan

“He’s big, physical, aggressive,” said Sinfield of the 22-year-old Martin, whom he coached at Leicester. “He’s a great ball-carrier, and he’s one of our better defenders.

“You guys saw first hand in the semi-final last year when he really stood out on the international stage against some of the biggest, nastiest, aggressive forwards in the world he was in and amongst it.

“Whether he’s viewed as a second row or at six, there’s some real quality there for us. Like our centre partnership and selection it means Steve [Borthwick] has a couple of headaches, which is what we want our head coach to have.”

“[Martin] the type of guy that just wants pointing in the right direction,” Sinfield added. “He’s going to have a wonderful career. If selected at the weekend I have no doubt he’ll leave a mark on somebody. He’s already a top player, but he’s going to get better and better.”

The respective returns of Lawrence and Tuilagi give England scope to pick a more direct runner at centre to, as Sinfield put it, “kick the door down”. Sinfield believes that the 32-year-old Tuilagi has plenty more to offer, whether or not he makes this weekend’s line-up.

“I would say this without any doubt: don’t write him off yet. He’s still got some really good years ahead of him, and he’s very much a big part of how we move forward and what we are doing here.”