Two wounded sides with points to prove clash at Twickenham this Saturday when England host Scotland in the Calcutta Cup.
England no doubt are still sore from watching another Grand Slam chance go up in smoke in Dublin. Stuart Lancaster’s never truly showed up, missing leadership and drive while Ireland manipulated them into submission.
It highlighted the gulf of both experience and temperament between the two sides. Luther Burrell is no longer a Test rookie but was outplayed by his younger opposite man, Robbie Henshaw.
Chris Robshaw was quiet. Dave Attwood and George Kruis flaked up against Devin Toner and Paul O’Connell. The scrum wasn’t on top until it was too late. George Ford succumbed to intense pressure. One pillar of your game failing is a blow, but England had cracks in nearly all of them.
Nowhere was this more obvious than with their composure. England racked up needless penalties that must have left Stuart Lancaster in despair.
Holding your nerve is no easy matter when Ireland’s defence hounds in the manner we saw it do two weeks ago but England had a say for certain key moments, their lineout five metres from Ireland’s line for example which was stolen by Toner.
The young talents of which so much is expected, and there’s no doubt that Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson can go far, all were given a rigorous examination and came up short. Just as England will value their victory over Wales to the maximum, they will have wanted to swiftly learn from and then move on from their loss to Ireland in a hurry.
Fortunately losing in the middle of the Six Nations means the chance of a reprieve isn’t far away, and boy do England need to give a performance.
Partly because their hopes of still lifting the title hinge on points difference, but also because it’s a chance to make a statement to those who believes they didn't have the nerve to win big games and therefore titles. England will have been impatiently banging on the door to get out at Twickenham.
The big inclusion selection wise is Courtney Lawes. He has looked sharp for Northampton, two games into his return from ankle surgery. He remains a monstrous physical specimen yet now has the level head and maturity to become one of the world’s best locks.
Lawes was sorely missed in Dublin, given only a 77 percent lineout success rate, as was the presence of Geoff Parling and Tom Wood who both make England’s bench for Saturday.
Lancaster will hope that infusion of three favourites from his time in charge will get England back on track. What’s crucial is whether England have been able to shake the disappointment out of their system.
Scotland could certainly offer some advice on that. Expectations were raised high after last November’s improved performances and doing so wasn’t exactly unreasonable.
Watching a young, skilful backline take the game to the likes of New Zealand and Australia is what Scottish fans have been demanding for years.
More to the point, Cotter has shored up the set-piece and made the scrum and lineout competitive again. All positive signs. And yet, Scotland have three losses from three games.
Getting Scotland to match up to Cotter’s high standards may take longer than everyone hopes, based on the coach’s post-match comments after defeat to Italy when he suggested that the squad had not taken onboard his pre-game messages.
That won’t be happening again. The Scotland squad might not have witnessed Cotter rage before being beaten by the Azzurri but he won’t have held back since. Greig Laidlaw’s comment says it all: “We have now seen both sides of Vern, he’s a hard man and rightly so.”
Laidlaw, who doesn’t get grouped with Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Sexton in the excellent goalkickers category because of marginal lack of distance, remains a big weapon for Scotland with his boot – he’s tied as the best kicker in the tournament so far for players with ten attempts or more.
Scotland, much like England, need more from experienced heads like Laidlaw and Ross Ford to show leadership, while even those players in the early 20s who have plenty of caps like Richie Gray and Stuart Hogg can step up in that regard. The full-back is both statistically the competition’s best attacker and also coming into this one with a big chip on his shoulder.
It’s already pretty clear that getting Scotland competitive again will take some time, while the threat of the Wooden Spoon is very real with a visit to Twickenham and hosting Ireland at home to come.
Good performances however would go some way to taking the edge off a fourth bottom-placed finish in 11 years. In the tournaments to come, Cotter and Scotland won’t have the excuse of blooding a new side and philosophy to fall back on.
Ones to Watch:
For England: Right up until he was injured playing for Saracens against Wasps last Sunday it looked as though Brad Barritt would be starting at inside centre after Luther Burrell’s undercooked outing in Dublin. Instead the Northampton Saints centre gets a reprieve. England desperately need him to be aggressive on both sides of the ball, but is he actually capable of that at his level? The jury is still out, but Burrell has another chance to make his case.
For Scotland: Back from his ban (and unsuccessful appeal) comes Finn Russell for Scotland. His absence was costly – given his replacement Peter Horne missed touch late on in the build-up to Italy’s winning score. Russell was bright in the opening two matches for Scotland and will no doubt be hungry to make amends following his sin-binning against Wales and subsequent suspension.
Head-to-Head: Two second rows destined to play for the British and Irish Lions. Courtney Lawes will make a hell of a difference in England’s pack, with Lancaster admitting that having him back involved to run the lineout would free up Dave Attwood to play his more natural, physical game (not exactly something Lawes is shy of doing either.)
He comes up against Jonny Gray, who feels on track to match his brother Richie’s achievement of touring Australia and with best of Britain and Ireland by the time the next tour to New Zealand comes around. Gray’s improvement has been rapid over the last two seasons and Scotland need him to dominate these battles against the likes of Lawes. A fine athlete.
2014: England won 20-0 at Murrayfield
2013: England won 38-18 at Twickenham
2012: England won 13-6 at Murrayfield
2011: England won 16-12 at Eden Park
2011: England won 22-16 at Twickenham
2010: 15-15 draw at Murrayfield
2009: England won 26-12 at Twickenham
2008: Scotland won 15-9 at Murrayfield
2007: England won 42-20 at Twickenham
2006: Scotland won 18-12 at Murrayfield
2005: England won 43-22 at Twickenham
2004: England won 35-13 at Murrayfield
2003: England won 40-9 at Twickenham
Prediction: Does the Calcutta Cup still how the sway of old? Certainly not in the previous two years. The history of this fixture deserves better than the recent offerings. Scotland after all haven’t won at Twickenham since 1983.
Given Scotland’s learning curve might be steeper than we all first thought, England look set to get back to Twickenham and make a big statement after flopping over the Irish Sea. England by 13.
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Tom Wood, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 David Denton, 7 Blair Cowan, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Jim Hamilton, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Ryan Grant, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Johnnie Beattie, 21 Adam Ashe, 22 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 23 Greig Tonks.
Date: Saturday, March 14
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)