The Calcutta Cup rarely needs any help in ratcheting up the tension, especially when players and coaches alike are happy to fire from the hip with the promise of “war” and “hatred” in what will always be rugby union’s oldest rivalry.
And yet somehow, on the eve of the crunch clash at Murrayfield between two sides desperate for a win, the ante was raised. European Professional Club Rugby announced an investigation into Saracens just as the England team bus was en route to Murrayfield, with seven of the club’s players on board and in line to feature against Scotland this afternoon. For individuals already trying to block out the imminent relegation to the Championship and uncertain futures that lay ahead of them, the timing was beyond unbelievable.
Yet even without last night’s sudden development, Six Nations Saturday already had it all. A Calcutta Cup alone is enough to lick the lips in anticipation thanks largely to Scotland’s revival in this fabled rivalry, having not so long ago appeared to be in danger of being cut adrift by the Six Nations heavyweights of England, France, Ireland and Wales.
Yet when you give the main course a succulent starter of two unbeaten Celtic rivals facing off at the Aviva Stadium, the Six Nations can be credited with serving up a menu of Michelin star quality.
This weekend’s Calcutta Cup feels like it has significantly more riding on it thanks to recent history. The 2018 Murrayfield defeat has been the talk of the town, with England intent on making up for their last visit north of the border where they were dealt a lesson in how to handle the breakdown. That result alone would give this encounter extra meaning, but throw in last season’s incredible draw at Twickenham, where a Scotland side inspired by a rogue Finn Russell turned a half-time 31-0 deficit into a 38-31 lead only for George Ford to steal a draw at the death, and you have the perfect remedy for a match filled with passion, revenge, aggression, niggle and a chance to re-write history. Scotland have not held the Calcutta Cup for three consecutive years since 1972, and doing so may not be enough to see Gregor Townsend’s side supersede an England team that made the World Cup final three months ago, but it would give them the undisputed bragging rights in this fierce rivalry that no Scottish fan would turn their nose up at.
Across the Irish Sea, an almighty collision will take place at the Aviva where two of the three unbeaten sides left in the competition meet. The likelihood is that France will be two from two unless Italy can shake off their 23-Test malaise and finally record a Six Nations win, meaning the question in Dublin is which team will join them in going for the Grand Slam.
If it is the hosts, then perhaps the real ‘Super Saturday’ on 14 March will still live up to that tag, given France host Ireland in the championship finale, but it will take some doing for both sides to get there unscathed.
But what if it’s Wales? Wayne Pivac’s side remain something of an unknown quantity in regards to the two victories they’ve chalked up since he replaced Warren Gatland,against the Barbarians and then Italy. But while last weekend’s 42-0 demolition of the Azzurri showed us little of Wales’s true title credentials, it did show us a team well-drilled in defence and attack, with a clinical edge and the added sparkle of Nick Tompkins and Johnny McNicholl to a squad that reached the World Cup semi-finals.
Should they make the short journey to Ireland and return with their unbeaten status intact, events in Edinburgh could easily see Wales installed as the championship favourites. Two from two looks much better as three from three when one of them is a victory in Dublin – something they have not achieved in the Six Nations since the 2012 Grand Slam.
Wales have reason to be optimistic mainly due to Ireland’s performance last weekend. Yes, they beat a strong Scotland side, but it was the manner of the victory that was so concerning. Ireland were by all accounts lucky to escape with victory as Stuart Hogg’s mistake let them off the hook in what could easily have been a draw – and had Scotland taken their chances it could have been much worse.
These are early days in the Andy Farrell era, and yet the former England defence coach is being judged on one game and one game alone. Claims that the early signs are not good feel remarkably premature for a coach whose accolades include building the defence that took the British and Irish Lions to victory over the Wallabies and a draw with the All Blacks, as well as the gameplan that took Ireland to one of their most celebrated successes. Just like this season, Ireland grafted their way to an opening victory that proved the catalyst for a 2018 Six Nations whitewash, a triumph that culminated in Rory Best famously lifting the championship at Twickenham.
The carrot for Johnny Sexton’s side now is that if they can see off Wales at home, they will have that little bit of momentum needed for the book-end of the tournament when they travel to England and France either side of the visit of Italy. It was Sexton’s moment of magic in Paris two years ago that got the ball rolling, a drop-goal from the bruised and beaten fly-half that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Something similar this afternoon can be just as influential.
It’s why this early rendition of ‘Super Saturday’ must be enjoyed while it lasts. The Six Nations is the most unpredictable annual tournament in rugby union, so much so that it is just as likely that the title is done and dusted by the final weekend as it is set-up for a Grand Slam showdown, so make the most of a what is a double-header of the highest billing.