Planet Rugby

Preview: Scotland v England

06th February 2014 20:56

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Calcutta challenge: Tom Wood

Two losing teams in Round One will meet at Murrayfield looking to get their Six Nations back on track when Scotland host England this weekend.

Neither team may have won but England fared drastically better than Scotland in their loss to France in Paris, narrowly losing out to Gäel Fickou's gliding score.

A slow start caught Stuart Lancaster's team off-guard and they were made to work brutally hard just to draw level, before building a second-half lead.

It was a performance of true character and resilience from Lancaster's young squad - with two news caps in the backline - that has received more praise than criticism, despite it culminating in a loss.

What is so pleasing about England at the moment is the confidence they are playing with, along with the obvious improvements in their game.

Owen Farrell has noticeably improved his attacking game, bold enough to run the ball himself and playing flatter up on the defensive line to try and outwit his opposition.

Danny Care's exile appears to have benefited him with a sublime showing in Paris, the only mystery being why he was taken off. Billy Vunipola, a carrier unlike any England have seen for some time, is the new ace in the pack.

Now other areas require work. England's lineout tends to stutter when needed most, a five-metre misthrow last weekend being the example.

They cannot expect to start as slowly as they did in Paris and then come back to win matches every time - better to build a cushion and then suffer a dip then to begin every game facing a mountain.

As the new faces bed in - partly why England are unchanged for Scotland - so confidence and understanding will naturally build.

Jonny May must have been crushed to leave the pitch so early with a broken nose after five minutes and England then missed his pace when Yoann Huget sped around May's replacement, Alex Goode. Jack Nowell started with a wobble but then flourished. Luther Burrell timed his supporting line off Vunipola perfectly to grab his first Test try on debut.

These players will all improve game by game, but England don't have much time. The World Cup looms on the horizon and this Six Nations represents Lancaster's final shuffle of the cards.

Losing in Paris is just about acceptable. But wins away to Scotland and Italy are now compulsory, with the challenges of facing Ireland and Wales at Twickenham lying in between.

Scotland know something about challenges. Dropping your captain entirely from the matchday squad is either bold or lunacy, but the fact is Kelly Brown isn't an openside flanker.

Chris Fusaro, uncapped, will offer more at the breakdown but to not have Brown working on the blindside (where Ryan Wilson is key in the lineout) or even in the squad is puzzling. Brown brings great leadership and character to a Scottish side whose confidence levels are far from bursting off the meter.

In Dublin, Scotland more or less kept Ireland at bay until half-time but were then swept away, their hosts proving too clinical and ruthless in attack.

Ruthlessness is something Scotland sorely lack. The ambition to play a more expansive game is admirable, but worthless if chances are not taken. Too often Scotland's carriers are too focused on taking contact rather than looking wide, suggesting a lack of confidence or skill, or maybe both.

Losing Sean Maitland for the next eight weeks doesn't help Scotland's attack but the reinclusion of Matt Scott at inside centre is a plus.

The onus is on new captain Greig Laidlaw and his half-back companion Duncan Weir to attack the space out wide rather than fear it. In Scotland's last five matches at Murrayfield they have only scored tries against Japan.

Do Scotland simply not have the players to win a Six Nations championship - not achieved since 1999 - or is it the coaching? Whichever reason, or both, only 11 Six Nations wins in the last ten years is an alarming decline.

Players to Watch:

For Scotland: All eyes naturally will be on Chris Fusaro. Opting for a specialist is understandable, but there are few tougher fixtures than a Calcutta Cup match in which to make your debut. Fusaro will have to adapt and adapt fast as England will take no prisoners at the breakdown, where Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw are difficult to shift.

Elsewhere this is a big game for Duncan Weir. The 21-year-old is a talent but can be erratic, not what Scotland require when seeking to win matches but what they do need for the future.

For England: For numerous reasons in Paris, Dan Cole had a rough night. Thomas Domingo had the better of him at the scrum and England paid the price, conceding six points from scrum penalties that by full-time had cost them. It's unlike Cole to have two bad games in a row and the Leicester tighthead will no doubt feel slightly wounded. Ryan Grant, Cole's fellow British and Irish Lion last year, has been warned.

Elsewhere, Jack Nowell finished with the most metres for England (81) and second highest number of tackles (10) on his Test debut in Paris. He is some talent who will only get better with time.

Head-to-Head: Glasgow lock Tim Swinson might not be the more obvious choice for a star Scottish player, but if you're keeping Richie Gray out of the side then you must be doing something right. Swinson caught the eye in Dublin as he made 15 tackles, more than any other Scot, and worked well in the lineout. Only David Denton carried more effectively in the pack. That work-rate shown by Swinson is exactly what Scotland need.

Joe Launchbury knows something about energy levels. The London Wasp is an absolute warhorse and hit rucks for fun in Paris. His lineout work is also excellent, and with Scotland having struggled in that area recently expect Launchbury - along with Courtney Lawes, Wood and Robshaw - to get up high and challenge.

Previous results:

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: Both teams drew 15-15 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: England came so close last weekend and Scotland were so far off the pace that this one seems pretty simple to call. The Murrayfield factor is significant, no question given England have only won there twice in the last decade, but England are in better shape as a group.

The opposite can arguably be said for the hosts, and even though Scotland should improve on last week's showing this has an English win written on the wall. The visitors have been burned and are hungry to keep their title hopes alive. England by eight.

The teams:

Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c) 8 David Denton, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Moray Low, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Scott Lawson, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Jonny Gray, 20 Johnnie Beattie, 21 Chris Cusiter, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Max Evans.

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Luther Burrell, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Danny Care, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Ben Morgan, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Brad Barritt, 23 Alex Goode

Date: Saturday, February 8
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Kickoff: 17:00 GMT
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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