As Stuart Lancaster celebrates his one year anniversary in charge of the national team, Scotland roll into town to contest the oldest fixture in rugby. The Calcutta Cup is a game in which form and previous performances are left at the door. Such is the history and the passion surrounding the fixture, the game takes on another level. The past few years have yielded a series of nail-bitingly tight encounters, that could seem boring to the neutral but to those with an affiliation to either nation have been either extremely satisfying (if you’re English) or bitterly disappointing (if you’re Scottish). Scotland may not have won since 2008, but the past four fixtures have been decided by seven points or less. Expect more of the same this Saturday.
Reasons to back England
Confidence is a word oft overused in sport, but it is one that is vitally important to England right now. Their last game was possibly their most impressive win since 2003, not so much in the result but in the manner of the victory. There was an attacking verve to their play that hadn’t previously been seen, and the big test now will be to see if they can follow that up, or if they revert to type. I would hope for the former but suspect the latter.
The Twickenham factor will be vital. Anyone who was present for that astonishing win will tell you it was an atmosphere different to virtually anything else they have experienced. The players must have felt it, and if the fans get behind the team in the same way against Scotland, it will be a huge boost.
Corbisiero’s injury is a big one, but England still have an excellent tight five beginning to gel. Joe Marler is his replacement, and after having one bad game against Australia in the autumn people seem to have forgotten that he has proven himself to be able to mix it with the best, most notably on the South Africa tour last summer. In Parling and Launchbury they have a second row pairing who compliment each other perfectly, and at tight-head Dan Cole is as good as they come.
Reasons to back Scotland
There is next to no expectation on them – although this might be slightly unfair. Scotland play at a level that is consistently just below that of the top 8 or so nations. The autumn result against South Africa and the summer win over Australia proves they can remain competitive. Sadly, for one reason or another, they are rarely able to haul themselves over the line. When they do, they don’t back it up in the following fixtures. Still, they will be confident that the Tonga result was just a blip, and focus on the fact that over the past few years these games have been incredibly tight. If they can muster some sort of composure when they find themselves in England’s twenty-two, they will be confident that they can win.
The Calcutta Cup is a special game for the Scots. When it comes down to it, this is the one they want to win most (funny how England are the nation a lot of teams want to beat most, isn’t it?). It is another notch up in terms of intensity for Scotland, and if they can keep that passion and ferocity in check they know they can upset the odds. No-one in Scotland has ever had a problem with being an underdog; it has been that way now for quite some time, and they will relish everyone writing them off.
In terms of the team, Scott Johnson has picked a mammoth pack, with the likes of Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton sure to test England’s physicality. The back three of Visser, Hogg and Maitland has bags of pace and potential, so there will be an even greater onus than usual on the men inside them to get the ball out wide. Looking at England’s rather more conservative back three, they could cause havoc if given a chance. Interestingly, Dean Ryan’s knowledge of the English players from his work at Sky could work in Scotland’s favour too.
As much as everyone likes to see the underdog bite, I just can’t see it happening. England expects after the autumn, and the players won’t want to let the fans down. The same level of intensity will see England through comfortably. Scotland, for their part, come into the match having dropped to 12th in the world rankings, with a coach who, despite talking a good game, is completely untested at this level. They’re not to be written off, but away at Twickenham, I can’t see them doing it. England by 7.