|Venue: Twickenham Stadium Date: Saturday, 4 February Kick-off: 16:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio 5 Live; follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app.|
Gregor Townsend hasn’t just won the Calcutta Cup in his time as Scotland coach, he’s saved it. He’s taken a rivalry that was every bit as beaten up as an heirloom on The Repair Shop and he’s restored it. Three wins and one draw against England in five Tests on his watch? Townsend is Jay Blades.
For the longest time the record only showed England win after England win after England win. Nine England wins in a row from 1991-1999. Five wins in a row from 2001-2005. Another seven England victories in a row to 2017. Scotland had the devil’s own job of scoring a try not to mind achieve a win in many of those seasons. That last Calcutta Cup before Townsend’s arrival ended 61-21 at Twickenham.
Scotland are in a better place now than they have been in almost a quarter of a century, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in the savage landscape of the Six Nations. Townsend has had some big wins, but not enough of them to make Scotland contenders. His team has ended massive losing runs at Twickenham and in Paris. They’ve won in Australia. They’ve played magnificently in near-victory against the All Blacks and have put 50 points on Argentina. And yet.
Scottish rugby fans have been asking for decades whether this is the year. They’re probably fed up asking now. The good in Scotland is outstanding, but if you had a fiver for every time one of the team’s supporters said that it’s the hope that kills then you’d be living next to the beach in Barbados by now.
The Calcutta Cup is the one pocket of consistency. Since the Grand Slam of 1990, Scotland have played England 32 times in the championship plus another two in the World Cup. Scotland have won only six of them. Townsend’s team accounts for three of the six.
Throughout the Scottish dog days we kidded ourselves that this was still one of the great fixtures. How could it be when the only uncertainty on most of those afternoons was not about who would win but by how many points England would win by?
Townsend turned all of that around. There’s a lot of stats flying around here, but they paint a picture, don’t they? It’s hard to believe but their record against England in the last five championships is better than that of Ireland, France and Wales. In that same time frame their record against England is better than South Africa’s and is the equal of New Zealand’s.
And here we go again. Having seen off Eddie Jones, Townsend is now going up against Steve Borthwick’s England. A first Six Nations for Borthwick, most probably the last for Townsend. The whole thing is epic and exhilarating.
There’s been a deafening silence in the preamble to Twickenham, a hush that was so often filled by the sound of Jones’s pound shop mind games. “Scotland are red-hot favourites,” said Jones this time last year. “They have to carry that burden. That expectation of winning is a different pressure to handle and I’m not sure how they handle that.” Decently, as it turned out.
Borthwick is above the pantomime. A serious coach and a seriously impressive man, this is a tumultuous beginning to his reign. He’s been unfortunate with injuries but all the signs are that after the wishy-washy days of his predecessor, England are going back to basics with a power game. Bullying Scotland will be at the heart of what they’ll try to do.
Exciting and scary selections offer promise
On Thursday, Townsend made a few surprise calls in his team selection. We expected the defensive organiser, and Townsend favourite, Chris Harris at 13, but instead the thrusting Huw Jones is in. That’s both exciting – Jones is a tremendous attacker – and scary – all of Scotland’s big wins have had Harris playing a huge role as master of the resistance when waves of attack headed Scotland’s way.
Harris is on the bench but another mainstay of the Townsend years, Ali Price, is out altogether. There was an experience argument behind the selection of Price, but a form argument won the day. Ben White scored against England a year ago. George Horne, a whirling dervish playing the best rugby of his life, is back-up.
On the wing, Townsend has gone for Kyle Steyn, a smart footballer and leader, over Sean Maitland. Not many would have called that one, but Steyn is having a substantial season with a winning Glasgow. He’s in a backline cruelly robbed of Darcy Graham, who was central to both of Scotland’s tries in the Calcutta Cup last year while also winning the turnover at the end that finished the game.
Graham was one of the world’s best wings when he was taken out with injury, but that Scottish backline is still potentially lethal. Jones and Sione Tuipulotu in the midfield with Finn Russell and White at half-back? Such promise there.
Scotland are without Zander Fagerson for the charge of the white brigade. Of all the players they didn’t want to lose, Fagerson would have been close to top of the list. WP Nel, 36 going on 37, has the job of handling Ellis Genge. Simon Berghan, two starts for Edinburgh since last April, is his understudy. That’s a red flag on Scotland’s hopes right there.
Scott Cummings has been missing for so long that you could almost forget how important he was. In his absence, Richie Gray, making his first Six Nations start in six years, is the gift that keeps on giving. George Turner is as dynamic a hooker as you’ll find but his lineout throwing under severe pressure is the weakness. Having a 19ft lock – or thereabouts – to throw at will make things a lot easier.
It’s reflective of the strides made by Luke Crosbie that even when Hamish Watson was declared fit, Crosbie would have been the choice of many at seven. He’s an impressive roughhouse and you can’t have too many of them. His former Edinburgh coach, Richard Cockerill, is now on the England coaching ticket and he once said of Crosbie: “A skinny fat man who came in from the academy. Skinny upper-body, pot belly, little skinny legs. Now he’s outstanding.”
It was a funny line, but Cockerill lavished praise on the openside – and Cockerill didn’t do a whole lot of lavishing in his time in Scotland, or anywhere else.
Scotland look a better team and a better squad, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to victory. Six Nations rugby is about a lot more than raw talent. It’s about temperament and discipline and decision-making when the heat is at its most intense.
Townsend’s team won the Calcutta Cup last season despite having just 37% territory. They spent 54 seconds in England’s 22 while England spent two-and-a-half minutes in Scotland’s 22. They conceded 13 penalties to England’s 10.
They won because Russell’s kicking game in the pivotal minutes just after the hour – when Scotland trailed 17-10 – was majestic. They won because Sam Skinner stole an English lineout with two minutes to go. They won because, in the last play, Harris made a fine tackle on Elliot Daly and Graham’s speed of thought at the breakdown was quicker than anybody else’s.
Scotland managed the big moments better than England. They’ve done a lot of that under Townsend in the Calcutta Cup. One more victory and they’ll be a step closer to locating the Holy Grail. They want to be contenders. They need to storm Twickenham to get things started.