On the face of it, there is not much in Saturday’s match between Scotland and England for the neutral. Two teams devoid of confidence, bereft of ideas regarding how to turn their loudly trumpeted attacking ambition into something, anything constructive or substantial. Hell there have even being England supporters on the message boards saying they are sorely tempted to give it a miss themselves. But there is far more to this game than that.
Even in these rigid, practical days of professionalism there is room for nostalgia, passion, emotion and tribalism. This, after all, is the only individual game in the tournament which has a trophy at stake. Sport is at its best when something of meaning is being played for and the Calcutta Cup certainly still means something.
Arguably this is more the case for the Scottish than the English. England are used to being targeted, to teams aiming to raise their game for that specific fixture. This is not the self-centred arrogance of a Little Englander; it often seems that the main rivalry between France, Ireland, Wales and Scotland is over who wants to beat England the most.
With all due respect to the others, the Scottish edge this particular battle. There is little malice in this these days (I think, although I am not so sure that applies on Calcutta Cup day), just a desire to stick one on the old enemy, to secure gloating rights for the next 12 months. Whatever the historical context, however much the spirits of Bannockburn and Culloden are summoned by the respective sides, there is a clear awareness that it is just a game. But even in these professional times when matters are viewed in a more measured and dispassionate way, this fixture raises the hairs just that little bit more, especially among the Scots.
20 years ago, when I first started following rugby closely, Scotland and France were the big games for the English with Wales and Ireland in an annual battle for the wooden spoon at the time. The Scotland game was always huge; the passion and sheer will to win cascading down on to the Murrayfield pitch from the stands was almost impossible to comprehend. In my mind, Scotland v England games were the only occasions when Bill McLaren’s famous neutrality slipped somewhat, although with hindsight it is more likely that the bias lay with me rather than the great men.
The 1990 Grand Slam match is known about by even the most casual rugby supporters but do not forget the draw in 1989 when Rob Andrew could have won it with the final kick of the game, or the World Cup semi final which England won 9-6 after Gavin Hastings had missed a penalty from in front of the sticks. In later years there was the classic 33-30 victory for England in 1999, a game in which they shared 6 tries and Gregor Townsend lit up Twickenham with his running; and 2000 when winless Scotland denied England a Grand Slam.
Things have been rather more low key in recent years as Scotland in particular have struggled. The 2000 triumph was their only success in the 16 years between 1990 and 2006 but that has made any victory all the sweeter. I was at Murrayfield in 2008, the match which secured the fate of Brian Ashton. It was a truly diabolical game of rugby but, after a 15-9 victory, if there was a Scotsman in Edinburgh who even remotely gave a stuff about that he kept himself scarce. The celebrations were as whole-hearted as they were long.
Perhaps herein lies something of a problem for Scotland. As the mighty Jim Telfer recently observed, for as long as they measure themselves purely against England, they will struggle to progress on the bigger stage. In both 2000 and 2008 they lost their other four fixtures but you would not have known it. The victory against England was all that was spoken about and was enough to save the job of the coach at the time. They go into this game with only 2 victories in their past 17 Six Nations games dating back to 2007. They achieved a solitary victory in each of the last 3 campaigns and are yet to post one this time. A victory on Saturday cannot be allowed to disguise the fact that this is a truly diabolical record for a proud rugby nation. Beating England will not change where Scotland are on the world stage, which is nowhere.
But England themselves are not exactly tearing up trees. The borderline desperation which the two teams will bring to the match is what will make it fascinating. If you are looking for fast-flowing, skilful try-packed action, I suggest you set your alarm to get up and watch the Super 14 in the morning and perhaps go for late afternoon stroll around 5pm. But if you want tense, passionate rugby, rugby which really matters in which 2 sides will be laid bare before you and after which one team will see light at the end of the tunnel, the other only darkness, then I’d suggest that in front of a television is the only place to be at teatime tomorrow.
By Stuart Peel