Preview: Scotland v England

Date published: February 5 2016

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Scotland have made strides under Vern Cotter but that progress would be underlined by a first win over England since 2008 on Saturday.

There’s a tentative suggestion Scotland might actually win this championship, highlighting just how far they’ve come in a short space of time under the former Clermont boss.

The tight five are impressive, their back-row tenacious at the breakdown. Finn Russell, Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg are all exciting backs making a name for themselves at the highest level.

This is all after Scotland finished with the Wooden Spoon in the 2015 Six Nations – viewed as a small setback on the overall path to making Scotland a force again, and that forgiveness was vindicated by falling a point short of the Rugby World Cup semi-finals.

What cannot happen is for that World Cup run to be looked back on as a flash in the pan. Scotland haven’t had as talented a starting XV as the one which will run out on Saturday for as long as can be remembered. 

Pair that with a raucous Murrayfield crowd fired up with hope and it’s no wonder Eddie Jones has played it safe with his selection – that's if safe means picking three uncapped players on your bench in one of the more intense international derbies going in Test rugby.

Jones after all has been employed to win. The development of young players will come, starting with first caps for Paul Hill, Jack Clifford and Ollie Devoto in Edinburgh.

Maro Itoje did deserve to win his first cap on Saturday, at least from the bench, but almost certainly will a week later in Rome, while Elliot Daly has been the form back in the country.

Jones has been sensible rather than sending a young group up to Murrayfield into a battle they’re not ready for. Perspective isn’t easy to maintain after a shambles as big as England’s World Cup, but in this case it's necessary.

A repeat of England’s 20-0 win from their last visit to Murrayfield won’t happen. It’s a compliment to Scotland that Jones has felt the need to harden up his side for an enormous first challenge as head coach.

Players to Watch

For Scotland: Having centre Mark Bennett healthy enough to start is a considerable boost. The Glasgow centre’s fitness has been a concern ever since he damaged his shoulder in the Champions Cup against Racing 92. Bennett was one of the five nominees for World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2015 and of Scotland’s talented crop of centres, he is the standout performer.

The long-awaited return of John Barclay to Scotland’s back-row has been warmly welcomed four years after his last appearance in the Six Nations. Operating a two-fetcher system alongside John Hardie may just give Cotter and Scotland an edge.

For England: The next man to fill England’s inside centre berth in fact began his Test career in the same position in this exact fixture four years ago. Owen Farrell and George Ford’s intuition – childhood friends, U20 team-mates – has been raved about for some time now without us seeing the full advantages of pairing them together at 10-12. Farrell, along with Mike Brown and Billy Vunipola, has also been named as a vice-captain. No longer England’s young gun in the backs having come through a full World Cup cycle, there will be more expected of him.

James Haskell has to be competitive at turning the ball over at the breakdown against the Barclay-Hardie combination for England to win. It’s hard to know what more Matt Kvesic, a specialist seven, could have done to make the side. Haskell’s 62 caps and recommendation from George Smith have won him the role, for now. England also need him and the rest of their back row to clear rucks effectively throughout – an area where they struggled during the World Cup.

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Head-to-head: Aside from that breakdown battle, and an intriguing match-up between two exciting young tens in Finn Russell and George Ford, this contest feels so close that it may just hinge on a scrum penalty going one way or the other.

WP Nel was the outstanding tighthead at the Rugby World Cup – impressive given the 29-year-old only made his Test debut in August – and on Saturday his opposite man Joe Marler is coming off a rough tournament with doubts surrounding his form as we enter the Six Nations. England’s whole tight five need a bounce-back game after their set-piece crumbled in front of everybody last September, but Marler and Dan Cole especially.

Previous results:
2015: England won 25-13 at Twickenham
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

Prediction: It’s hard to remember a Calcutta Cup match with this much hype, and that’s testament to the strides made by Scotland under Cotter. When was the last time we were legitimately this excited about a Scotland side? Win this and they'll be taken seriously as title contenders.

This does feel like a one-score game which won’t be decided until very late on. No one has a bigger point to prove than England, who want to put their World Cup behind them as quickly as possible. That hunger might just be the deciding factor. England by three.

The teams:

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 David Denton, 7 John Hardie, 6 John Barclay, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Willem Nel, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson
Replacements: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Gordon Reid, 18 Zander Fagerson, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Blair Cowan, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Duncan Taylor

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Danny Care, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 James Haskell, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 George Kruis, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Paul Hill, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Jack Clifford, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Alex Goode, 23 Ollie Devoto

Date: Saturday, February 6
Venue: Murrayfield
Kick-off: 16:50 GMT
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)

by Ben Coles

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