Scotland vs.. England Preview

Analysis of the England – Scotland Six Nations game at Murrayfield.

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England, underdogs? Oh, okay who are they playing must be the All Blacks. Oh, the Six Nations you say? Well the only team that could possibly be favourites ahead of England would have to be the French. Not the French, well who then? SCOTLAND?!?!?!? Are you deluded?

However strange it may seem, for perhaps the first time in the professional era England are heading up North to Murrayfield as underdogs. England have a new coach who has never coached at first class International level and a starting XV that boasts a mere 233 caps. Compare that to Scotland’s cap count of 499 and Andy Robinson, a coach with vast international experience who was a key part of England’s 2003 World Cup success. On paper the gulf in international experience is vast. Perhaps the biggest shock is when you compare the two skippers. New Scotland skipper, albeit Robinson’s second choice, Ross Ford is winning his 54th cap and has a Lions tour to his name. Chris Robshaw, England’s new skipper, has a solitary cap next to his name. Considering that England have not won at Murrayfield since 2004 it is clear to see why they are embracing the underdog tag.

However, the noises coming from the England camp is that the new influx of faces has brought a freshness to the England set-up that it hasn’t had in years. Stuart Lancaster hasn’t put a step wrong so far with impeccable media work, a hard line approach regarding off the field discipline whilst dedicating time to the players to keep them on side. However, the acid test comes now and all that will matter is whether he can deliver results on the pitch.

Scottish Rugby will be buoyed by Edinburgh’s qualification to the knock-out rounds of the Heineken Cup. Only the second Scottish side to ever achieve this and matches England’s achievement with only Saracens qualifying. However, if Scotland are to have any hope in the tournament they must find a way to cross the whitewash. They only scored a try in one of their four world cup games failing to cross the line against the lowly Georgia. If Scotland can’t find a way to score tries they will find themselves once again in a fight for the Wooden Spoon.

The Scots have also been embroiled in a bit of a PR gaffe when 2008 T-shirts bearing the words: Calcutta Cup. Scotland Winners were accidently re-released this week. The timing was considerably unfortunate following Andy Robinson’s words earlier in the week standing by his comments that he made after the World Cup when he accused England of ‘arrogance’.

THE EDGE

With both starting line-ups now named it is time to see which team has the Edge in each area of the field.

Front Row

England: 1-Alex Corbisiero, 2-Dylan Hartley, 3-Dan Cole

Scotland: 1-Allan Jacobsen, 2-Ross Ford (captain), 3-Euan Murray

In a few years time this England front-row might win this contest hands down but for now they suffer mostly from being ‘a bit green’.  Despite some poor refereeing of the scrum during the World Cup it was certainly one of England’s biggest weaknesses and an area where they leaked a lot of penalties. Corbisiero is definitely a better option than Stevens but Dan Cole has yet to convince. Dylan Hartley has been talked up a lot but he needs to be more consistent with his lineout throwing and more dangerous in the loose. Hartley also has to step forward as one of England’s leaders. He is now a senior player in this England pack and must lead by example. He has enough talent to eventually live up to the hype. Scotland’s front row is established with Allan ‘Chunk’ Jacobsen and Euan Murray both strong scrummagers. Robinson’s choice of Murray over Geoff Cross suggests he believes the scrum is an area that Scotland can really get at England. In the recent World Cup clash Scotland dominated at scrum time. If they can dominate once again it will set the foundations for a Scottish victory. Ross Ford is often one of Scotland’s more consistent performers and his main concern will be getting the lineout right. In the loose he is athletic enough to play as an extra flanker. The added responsibility of captaincy should spur him on to play even better.

THE EDGE: Scotland

Second Row

England: 4-Mouritz Botha, 5-Tom Palmer

Scotland: 4-Richie Gray, 5-Jim Hamilton

Another area where Scotland should be confident of having the edge. Richie Gray was one of their standout performers last year with his hard running style and stands out with his blond flowing locks. Jim Hamilton adds more ballast than Alaistair Kellock to the scrum. Tom Palmer has been one of England’s better performers of late and was outstanding in the last Six Nations. His experience and ability in the lineout will be crucial. He most also provide a cool head for this inexperienced England pack. Mouritz Botha is one of the few England players that you can describe as a nasty bastard. To any forward this is a compliment rather than an insult. One of the criticisms levelled at England’s pack is that they are too pretty and can be bullied. Botha should bring a meaner streak to this England pack, something they will be lacking in the absence of Courtney Lawes.

THE EDGE: Scotland

Back Row

Perhaps the hardest area to call as both back rows are full of talent but low on international experience. Denton has been one of the cornerstones of Edinburgh’s performances this year and Ross Rennie must be doing something right to relegate John Barclay to the bench. The Scottish back-row is weaker without Kelly Brown but Strokosch is a bruising tackler. The England back-row should not be underestimated. They too may be missing a key figure in Tom Wood who if fit could have been captain and not Chris Robshaw. Robshaw finally gets his shot with England after being on the fringes for several years. Lancaster’s decision to elect him captain may seem baffling to some but he has a tank that can run for 80 mins and has been instrumental in Quins’ success this season. Quins sit at the top of the Premiership and part of that success can be attributed to Robshaw’s inspirational leadership. Phil Dowson may be earning his first England cap but with his amount of club experience shouldn’t be overawed by the game. He has played in a Heineken Cup final and it is pleasing to see him get his chance with England after being largely ignored by previous regimes. Tom Croft should need no introduction after being with England for a few years now and starring on the Lions tour of 2009. Croft will be looking to recapture his old form and as one of England’s quickest players is a dangerous broken field runner. The game could well be decided on which back row gets control of the game. The new look England back row must strive to create quick ball, something their predecessors found extremely difficult.

England: 6-Tom Croft, 7-Chris Robshaw (captain) 8-Phil Dowson

Scotland: 6-Alasdair Strokosch, 7-Ross Rennie, 8-David Denton

THE EDGE: Tie

Half-backs

England: 10-Charlie Hodgson, 9-Ben Youngs

Scotland: 10-Dan Parks, 9-Chris Cusiter

Collective groans could be heard all around Scotland when it was announced that Dan Parks would be playing fly-half. He has been the pantomime villain of Scottish rugby for the last few years. He enjoyed a resurgence in 2009 easily performing the best he ever had in a Scotland shirt before slumping back to his standard stodginess. Parks has an excellent kicking game but in all his time as a Scotland 10 has never been able to get his backs firing. Scotland have some talented outside backs but in selecting Parks Robinson has set out his stall. He will hope to pin England back and win against them in an arm wrestle. Cusiter has simply won the Scotland scrum-half carousel. There are several Scottish scrum-halves with little to chose between them but Mike Blair is a little unlucky to be bench-warming as he has arguably played the better rugby this season. Charlie Hodgson may not be England’s first choice 10 but Scotland would kill to have a player of his attacking talent. The frailities in Hodgson’s defence are still present and will no doubt be tested by the likes of Lamont and the Scottish back-row but he will be boosted with the familiarity of playing with his centres at Saracens. Hodgson is one of the form 10s in the premiership this year and could be the man to get the England backs firing. On his day Ben Youngs is a talented scrum half but he certainly struggled at the World Cup. On the front foot he is a dangerous prospect and is a threat sniping round the side of rucks. His service must improve from that which he offered at the World Cup and with an inexperienced pack he must take more control and if England find themselves on the back foot he can’t afford to let his basics slump as they have in the past.

THE EDGE: England

Centres

England: 13-Brad Barritt, 12-Owen Farrell

Scotland: 13-Nick De Luca, 12-Sean Lamont,

Another big contrast in the centres. Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt do not even have a cap to share between them. It is the first uncapped centre partnership  England have fielded since 1969. However despite their lack of international experience it is an upgrade on Shontayne Hape and Mike ‘One Gear’ Tindall. Tuilagi is a big loss to the England side as he was one of the few players that gave England real penetration and go-forward during the World Cup. Defensively the England midfield should be solid. Farrell is a very good defender and as Barritt and Farrell play together at club level there should be a good understanding between them already. However, Lancaster has decided to flip their normal positions with Farrell at 12 and Barritt at 13 while they normally play the other way round at Saracens. Barritt is the more attacking threat but having Farrell at 12 will give England another good kicking option. Farrell may be young but he showed nerves of steel in Saracens’ premiership win last year. The boys in blue can boast 89 caps between them in the centre. I am still unconvinced with Lamont at 12 and believe if Scotland really want to move forward they need to find an second five-eight with better distribution skills. However, Lamont is frequently Scotland’s hardest runner and makes a lot of yards. He is direct and will break the gain-line providing the backs have good service. Nick de Luca has had some electric displays at club level but has never been able to transfer that to the international arena. My abiding memories of De Luca’s international career so far are either dropping the ball or giving away a penalty. Ansbro would probably be starting if fit but this gives De Luca another chance to prove himself to the Scottish doubters. If he performs well it will be difficult for Ansbro to force his way back in.

THE EDGE: Tie

Back three

England: 15-Ben Foden, 14-Chris Ashton, 11-David Strettle

Scotland: 15-Rory Lamont, 14-Lee Jones, 11-Max Evans

This is one area where England can simply point to their try scoring record and claim dominance. Even if you can accuse England of playing stodgy rugby Ashton has racked up the tries in his short International career and Foden is an extremely dangerous runner when he has the confidence to attack from the back. Ashton of course also broke Scottish hearts by scoring the try that knocked them out of the World Cup. Strettle hasn’t played for England for a few years but his past experience probably edges him just in front of Charlie Sharples. Sharples is an electric finisher but it would seem foolhardy for Lancaster to cap too many players at the same time. Hopefully we will see Sharples in an England shirt in the not too distant future but it will not be on Saturday at Murrayfield. Scotland’s back three are certainly talented but Scotland’s backs have rarely had the opportunity to shine. Lee Jones is a new cap but has been one of Edinburgh’s most consistent performers this season. The tries have been flowing in for Edinburgh this season and Robinson will aim to transfer that to the international stage. Max Evans has over the last few years been Scotland’s one genuine threat in the backline. When the ball is in his hands he nearly always does something with it but it will depend on the men inside him as to how much ball he will be seeing. Lamont has played plenty of rugby for Scotland and is solid defensively and under the high ball and can be a threatening runner given some space.

THE EDGE: England

In summary Scotland should look to bully the English pack. If England are able to get a foothold and avoid the stodginess of the past they should be able to run away with it. If Scotland are able to draw the English into an arm wrestle it will be the Scots game to lose. Home advantage means my money is on the Scots but they have a tendency to lose close games that they should win.  

Overall Edge: Slight Edge Scotland

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1 Comment
  1. Andy
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Not a single bookmaker has Scotland as favourites for the match… Underdogs? I think not.

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