England and Scotland face fork in the road with Calcutta Cup set to define their Six Nations

Scoltand have won the last three Calcutta Cup fixtures  (Getty Images)
Scoltand have won the last three Calcutta Cup fixtures (Getty Images)

“There’s certainly going to be some niggle,” predicted Kevin Sinfield, a smile spreading almost involuntarily across his face. England’s assistant coach may not be as versed in the Calcutta Cup rivalry as some on Steve Borthwick’s staff, but the ex-rugby league star has learned quickly what this fixture means, a tussle of thistle and rose so often appropriately thorny.

“When you’ve got two angry, nasty forward packs wanting to go at each other, there’ll be some niggle,” Sinfield expanded. “It’s a Test match, there’s a lot at stake, we haven’t won against them for a number of years – no doubt there’ll be some niggle.”

For England, this trip north feels like a game of paramount importance. It is four years since they last swigged the sips of success from the old silver chalice, and seven since they put on a performance to be proud of in this fixture. The middle weekend is the natural Six Nations pivot point but England’s path from here will be significantly rockier if their rough recent run does not end. Win and they’ll carry momentum through to a demanding two-week coda in which performances may matter more than results; lose and another two-win tournament may well beckon with fixtures against Ireland and France to come.

Scotland’s recent supremacy in this fixture has reflected their development into a more complete side. The continuity that they have built under Gregor Townsend has contrasted sharply with England’s rather more muddled approach. The certainty and cohesion that Townsend has given his squad, and that Borthwick now seeks for England, has been a driving factor behind the late surges that have ultimately left three tight games inked in blue.

Scotland have dominated the Calcutta Cup in recent years (Getty Images)
Scotland have dominated the Calcutta Cup in recent years (Getty Images)

But Scotland know all too well how cruel this competition can be. A different interpretation of the video evidence a fortnight ago and Townsend’s clan would have remained unbeaten; instead it is they who are playing catch up and seeking to keep their own faint tournament hopes alive. No doubt, the fact that Scotland could, or should, be two from two will sting like cheap whisky on the throat, but little lifts Scottish spirits like the slaying of the Auld Enemy.

“When you’re coming in off the back of a defeat, you have to bounce back with a victory,” said Townsend on Thursday, having sought to rid his squad of any residual bitterness from the France reverse. “The full focus is on this game because it’s our most important game of the season.

“It’s the most important game for our supporters and we also play for a trophy, in amongst the Triple Crown and other trophies. This is one that we’re focused on more than the others. That probably shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

“It’s history. It’s emotion. We’ve seen the impact this game has on Scottish supporters when we do manage to get a victory in this fixture. That’ll drive us on Saturday.”

Scotland were denied by a contentious TMO decision against France (PA Wire)
Scotland were denied by a contentious TMO decision against France (PA Wire)

Listening to some of England’s rhetoric this week will leave Scotland braced for some rough stuff from a travelling squad bolstered by a bit of extra biff. The return of Bath’s Ollie Lawrence gives them a power-carrying midfield option, and Finn Russell will expect to see plenty of his club colleague, while big game hunter George Martin bolsters a bulky bench. “I have no doubt he’ll leave a mark on somebody,” Sinfield warned.

Of course, Russell and co have heard it all before, Scotland’s fly half so adept at bedevilling a defence focussing overly on him. England have been burned by the flames of the Scottish fire starter before and there will be opportunities to ignite England’s high-risk, high-reward blitz defensive system. Defence coach Felix Jones will have taken plenty from how his South Africa doused and dominated Russell and the Scottish attack in Marseille at the start of the World Cup – but England do not yet extinguish in the same way.

Besides, Scotland have shifted tactically this year, kicking more than any other side in the competition, particularly off Russell and Ben White in the halves. The return of Blair Kinghorn gives them another big boot with which to test the English backfield. It is a visiting back-three unit with an unexpected new centrepiece, Freddie Steward left out of an England side for only the second time since his Test debut the best part of three years ago.

Hassling Finn Russell will be key for England (Getty Images)
Hassling Finn Russell will be key for England (Getty Images)

Stepping into Steward’s slippers is George Furbank, rewarded for his outstanding club form for Northampton. It’s a fascinating selection, one that hints at a need for distributing hands with Lawrence returning alongside Henry Slade in midfield, and perhaps an acknowledgement that England will have plenty of ball to run back. Furbank is an intuitive counter-attacker, perhaps quicker and craftier than Steward, and developing as a leader after an impressive season as a stand-in captain with the high-flying Saints.

Furbank was part of England’s last claiming of the Calcutta Cup in 2020. “I definitely feel like a different player now,” said Furbank after an international career of fits and starts. “Steve just said he wanted me to bring my game to this England team. I’m looking to be George Ford’s eyes and ears, feed information into him, dominate with ball in hand and be aggressive with that side of things.”

A need for ruthlessness will have been underscored by both coaches given the history of a match of fine moments and margins. The first blend of Famous Grouse was still resting in the cask the last time the Calcutta Cup spent four years north of the border in the 1890s; another Scotch success might just be due.