And so, the date has come, nearly two months to the day after gorging themselves on Christmas dinner, rugby fans have another delight to feast themselves upon this Saturday. The Calcutta Cup returns to Edinburgh for one of its most eagerly anticipated editions in years.
While expectations have been dampened slightly by Wales’ demolition job in Cardiff three weeks ago, Scotland hold out hope that their attacking talents will be able to bring them a first victory over England this decade.
England coach, Eddie Jones has been very coy in his comments about Scotland, echoing the media’s description of them as the darlings of European rugby before the tournament, much in the same way as Warren Gatland did before orchestrating his destruction of them at the Millennium Stadium.
Jones has even more reason than Gatland to be suspect of the media trumpeting the Scots’ abilities as he is able to draw on memories of his own team tearing them to shreds twelve months ago at Twickenham.
That day, Scotland arrived with wind in their sails following victories over experienced Ireland and Wales teams. The clash was talked up all week as a chance for the Scots to stake a claim for the title by winning in London for the first time this century. They later returned, deflated, having been blown away by a fantastic display of free-flowing rugby.
Within 25 minutes, Jones’ side were 20-0 up having produced some of the best attacking rugby of his tenure with George Ford and Owen Farrell pulling the strings for Jonathan Joseph to do the damage.
Jones’ opposite number, Vern Cotter was forced to watch as his plans were pulled apart by a Fraser Brown sin-bin, a backline injury crisis and his centres spreading wider than the Red Sea at the command of Ford and Farrell.
Jones will be hoping for a repeat performance on Saturday afternoon and, after Scotland’s capitulation in Wales, many English fans will be travelling north of the border confident of overpowering the hosts and returning with a comfortable victory.
However, Jones will not be foolish enough to assume as much, realising the progress the Scots have made in the last year as well as the unstoppable rise of the new face he will find in his opposite number.
While Cotter won 52% of his matches and raised the team to their all-time highest world ranking of 5th, the SRU had no hesitation in bidding him farewell last summer to make way for Gregor Townsend to take the top job.
This was undoubtedly harsh on Cotter, but the lure of having a Scotsman in charge and the risk of losing Townsend and his undoubtable talent to a foreign club, as they did for much of his playing career, forced their hand.
Having taken over at Glasgow in 2012 after a three-year stint as the national side’s attack coach, Townsend moulded a team around a Scottish core that produced free-flowing rugby to climb up the Celtic League and secure a first Scottish Pro12 title in 2015.
The following year, Townsend’s team were unable to retain their title but showed progression in the European Champions Cup by escaping their group for the first time in their history. Their dreams were cut short by a Saracens team containing many England stars, but Townsend had made his mark.
Scotland’s results since Townsend took charge in the summer suggest that the Glasgow job was no flash in the pan. Using many of the same key players from his time with the Warriors, Townsend’s team have displayed high tempo rugby that has the ability to blow teams away, as they did with Australia in the autumn after pushing New Zeland close the week before.
Mixed in with these impressive display, however, are abject ones such as they produced on the opening day against Wales and in the summer against Fiji. Such performances must frustrate Townsend no end and he will know that he cannot afford for his team to produce one again on Saturday.
Yet, if they deliver anything close to their best, then they will give England a challenge that they have not faced from the men in blue for a long time. Their task is not an easy one, however, as they aim to defeat Europe’s premier team.
The difference between the two teams can be seen in comparing their coaches as Jones appears as an antithesis to Townsend.
Born in Australia and playing as a niggly hooker for Randwick while holding a job as a school teacher, he could not seem more different from the 82-times capped fly-half from Scotland who reached the heights of the game by being part of the successful Lions tour to South Africa in 1997.
He also differs in his coaching experience, finding himself in the twilight of his career in contrast to Townsend’s relatively bare cv. Nonetheless, with such longevity comes tenacity and wiliness, two attributes that Jones holds in abundance. He will have no qualms about the media praising Scotland’s attacking approach and is sure to be holding some tricks up his sleeve to unleash on Saturday.
The most important skill that Jones has brought to his team is anability to win, even when they are not producing their best rugby. This has been evident throughout his reign, during which they have lost only one of 26 matches. They have consistently pulled through at vital moments, such as against Wales in the previous round where they showed a resilience to hold out that was not present during Stuart Lancaster’s reign.
This resilience is built around an experienced core, who seem to be reaching milestones every week. This time it is Joe Launchbury’s chance for acclaim as he wins his 50th cap, while Dylan Hartley overtakes Jonny Wilkinson to go second in the list of most-capped England players. Like their coach, these player’s experience aids them in the game’s toughest moments and make them a formidable proposition to defeat as they continue to march towards a date with destiny at next year’s World Cup.
Townsend’s vibrant side will be looking to build on their controlled second-half against France to upset the English charge and banish nightmares from Cardiff, but they will struggle to do so against such formidable opponents.
England and Jones’ wiliness and experience will hold the key on Saturday afternoon and I expect that they will travel back south having been pushed hard but secured the victory. That is what sets the two teams apart at the moment and Townsend’s team must win on Saturday if they are to prove that they can truly compete for silverware and take more than just experience and harsh lessons from another key encounter.
Image courtesy of England Kath