Scotland have become England’s bogey team – this is how

Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell of Scotland celebrate with the Calcutta Cup after victory in the Guinness Six Nations match between Scotland and England at BT Murrayfield Stadium on February 05, 2022 in Edinburgh, Scotland
Scotland are going for a fourth straight Calcutta Cup success - David Rogers/Getty Images

The immortal rumble in the Murrayfield tunnel, when Ryan Wilson bid to rattle George Ford’s cage, is held up as a turning point with good reason. Eleven months previously, Scotland had been humbled 61-21 at Twickenham.

In the hours that followed the Wilson-Ford fracas, Gregor Townsend’s side halted a 10-year losing streak against England. And that 25-13 triumph was just the beginning. Since the start of 2018, Scotland have lost just one of six Calcutta Cup meetings.

England’s measly win rate of 17 per cent in that period is worse than their returns against New Zealand, South Africa, France and Ireland; everyone. Scotland, statistically, are England’s bogey team. And by quite a distance. This is how Townsend has turned the tables.

Finn Russell and a collective commitment

Despite missing the 2020 encounter, the only one Scotland have lost, due to his infamous breach of off-field team protocol, Finn Russell has been close to an ever-present of the other five fixtures. He has only missed 10 minutes, those due to a 2021 yellow card for tripping Ben Youngs.

His influence has seemed immense, a feeling corroborated by the statistics. According to Stats Perform, he has fashioned five line-breaks. Stuart Hogg, with two, is his closest challenger by this metric.

Masterful moments are easy to call to mind. The 2018 pass to Huw Jones that sailed across Scotland’s 22 and lobbed Jonathan Joseph was jaw-dropping. A year later, he looked the other way to fox Manu Tuilagi and sent Sam Johnson tearing up the middle of Twickenham. In 2022, he sparked a comeback with three kicks.

The first found Duhan van der Merwe to outflank England’s defence. The second, on the next phase towards the opposite wing, earned a penalty try after being batted into touch by Luke Cowan-Dickie. Minutes later, a third Russell strike bobbled to within five metres. Joe Marler had to throw into the line-out, because Cowan-Dickie was in the sin bin. A mix-up eventually brought a scrum penalty that yielded the winning points.

nd's Finn Russell reacts during a scrum
Finn Russell's magic comes alive against England - Lee Smith/Reuters

England did exert pressure on Russell last season, but could not quell him for long enough. Russell put Huw Jones clear in the lead-up to Scotland’s first try, after Owen Farrell had chased him at a line-out, and then conducted the sweeping counter that foreshadowed Van der Merwe’s winner.

Townsend has prioritised a “game of speed and movement”, telling Tuesday’s episode of the BBC Rugby Union Weekly podcast that anything else would put Scotland in danger of being “overmatched at some point when you play a team with a huge pack”. He has an ideal string-puller in Russell, but a balanced backline with clarity over individual roles has also allowed newer faces to thrive immediately. Think of Ben White at scrum-half or Sione Tuipulotu at inside centre. Kyle Steyn impressed on the right wing in 2023, and returns with Blair Kinghorn for Saturday. Russell is the headline act, empowered by a complementary supporting cast, and also embodies Scotland’s conviction.

Controlling tempo and seizing chances

John Barclay and Hamish Watson ruled the breakdown in 2018, scrapping and spoiling superbly. England surrendered 10 attacking rucks in that game; a simply crippling return. The following year, Darcy Graham mucked in with some crafty jackalling. All three victories in this current Scotland run have been sealed by last-play turnovers: Watson in 2021, Graham in 2022 and Jamie Ritchie in 2023.

In 2022 specifically, there was a different sort of disruption. Scotland often stood tall in tackles and sapped England’s impetus that way. Matt Fagerson was a burly nuisance to the men in white, with Watson and Ritchie ready to pounce if carriers became isolated. In various ways, Scotland’s defence has tended to control the pace of the game while England have had the ball. Then, in attack, they have kept the energy high.

Also in 2022, Ben White’s try caught England napping after they had cleared to touch. A rapid line-out was moved into midfield and Scotland bounced back towards the same touchline, using Russell as bait on the far side of the ruck. Hogg stepped up at first-receiver, arced to the outside of Maro Itoje and offloaded to the dazzling Graham, who tore clean through. White was on hand to finish an ‘11 play’ – the name given to a set move that moves one phase in-field before changing direction – and labelled it as a “complete team try”. “It was something the analysts looked at, the coach implemented and the players executed,” he told the Telegraph Rugby Podcast this week. “We spoke about taking quick line-outs, getting the ball in, keeping it alive and trying to play quick.”

In every Calcutta Cup game except 2020, Scotland have been the more clinical side in the opposition 22. They averaged a quite remarkable 5.4 points per visit in the 2019 shoot-out, with 3.4 points per visit in 2022 and 4.1 in 2023. Those figures are seriously efficient, while England’s inferior efforts – including 0.8 points per entry in both 2018 and 2021 – endorse Scotland’s dogged defence.

Set-piece solidity and canny kicking

While England are ahead 9-5 on scrum penalties in this series of six matches, it has not hurt Scotland too badly. Pierre Schoeman, George Turner and Zander Fagerson form a fearful front-row unit these days. They caused South Africa issues in Marseille last September.

As for the line-out, Scotland have not lost a throw in the past three Calcutta Cup games. They have thought creatively to avoid the disruption of Itoje, sending the ball over the top into midfield and also feeding the front quickly. Although their driving has not been as potent, with England registering 105 maul metres to Scotland’s 35 since 2018, according to Stats Perform, they have earned a platform. And at the death in 2023, Scotland’s line-out defence came through. Jonny and Richie Gray stayed down and shunted into a counter-drive that splintered England, who were in search of a pushover.

For all the athleticism that Scotland possess, they have kicked for more metres and carried for fewer metres than England in each of their last two Calcutta Cup wins. Prior to that, Ali Price’s chip and chase set up Magnus Bradbury in 2019, while a precise up-and-under from Russell, which allowed Sean Maitland to climb above Farrell, won crucial field position before Van der Merwe’s decisive score in 2021.

Scotland thoroughly deserve to be viewed as favourites this weekend. Six years on from Wilson’s antics, England are the underdogs with a point to prove.