England v Scotland: Six Nations preview as new era under Steve Borthwick to begin with narrow victory
New year, new tournament, new players and a new head coach; it is not the place you necessarily want to be seven months out from the Rugby World Cup, but that is the position England find themselves in.
After the unceremonious sacking of Eddie Jones after a dreadful 2022, the Rugby Football Union have brought in Steve Borthwick to try and alter the direction of this Red Rose side.
Ever since the 2019 World Cup final, which saw South Africa dismantle England up front, they have been on the decline. Last year was woeful for Jones’ men as they won just five of their 12 matches and ended in another pitiful defeat to the Springboks.
The usually mild-mannered Twickenham crowd voiced their displeasure, with boos ringing out after the final whistle, and the governing body duly acted.
In has come Borthwick, seeking to reverse those fortunes and bring some excitement back to English rugby. He has made a few changes to the squad but much of the spine from the previous era remains, with the head coach’s focus on making adjustments to the game plan.
No doubt his big aim will be on improving the set-piece, a constant issue for England over the past few years, with new attack coach Nick Evans looking to finally get the Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell axis working efficiently.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence sits Scotland, who themselves have not had the smoothest build up. They are in a better position than the Auld Enemy, but the Scots have seen a coaching departure in the form of AB Zondagh, while injuries have disrupted their preparations, with Hamish Watson, Zander Fagerson and Darcy Graham all significant absentees.
A lack of consistency in performance also remains and, added to those aforementioned factors, it makes you question whether the Scots have the ability to beat England at a packed out Twickenham.
All in all, it means this encounter is a very difficult one to predict. The Scots have the recent history on their side, with just one defeat in five matches, but could this England outfit produce something special?
Where the game will be won
The battle for supremacy and eventual victory always starts at the set-piece, but we can’t see either team getting the upper hand initially. The worry for Scotland is that they are a bit short in the front-row stocks and you wonder how Simon Berghan and Jamie Bhatti will fair against Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole in the second period, despite Vunipola’s well-known technical issues at the scrum.
But ultimately, a lot will depend on how this England team adapt to the new regime. As well as the arrival of Borthwick, there has been a complete change in the backroom team with Evans and Kevin Sinfield signing on as attack and defence coaches respectively. That certainly gives an edge to the Scots, who have the greater continuity, and they have picked a team to attack the hosts and put them under pressure.
However, as the match goes on and the English get used to the different systems, they may well gain the ascendency, especially when their stronger bench arrives onto the field. That opening 40 minutes is therefore huge. Discipline will be important, particularly at the breakdown, while the kicking games of the respective half-backs, as well as the chasing and catching game, will determine the direction of that first half. If Scotland can claim a healthy advantage then the match may well be over at the break, but the hosts will fancy themselves to finish much the stronger if they can stay in touch.
Last time they met
What they said
England captain Farrell knows that Scotland will present a stern challenge at Twickenham, with the visitors having the better of the rivalry over the past five years.
“I think we have won one in the last five years. That’s where we are at and that’s why we understand we have a lot more work to do,” he told Sky Sports.
“Scotland have been playing fantastic rugby for a long time. They are a pretty settled group of players and that shows with the way they’re playing.
“We want to give this crowd something to cheer about and show them how willing we are to fight for each other. I’ve been lucky enough to play at Twickenham a fair amount of times, and they have been times when it’s deafening. The feeling and momentum you get from that is a different level.”
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend admits that they can’t get carried away by the occasion or else it will cost them.
“I’ve been guilty of that in the past,” he told reporters. “In 2019, I believe I put too much emotion into the fixture, and we weren’t in control in those first 15, 20 minutes.
“We know it’s a different atmosphere at Twickenham … we’ve got to make sure our minds are clear, our communication is strong, our togetherness is on show.
“[Victory in] 2021 meant so much. We got sent videos of people at home, that been confined to their houses for a while during lockdown, and that gave them a massive lift. We’re here to win, we’re here to inspire our nation and make them proud.”
Players to watch
There are some fascinating selections from both teams with form – in most cases at least – being chosen ahead of experience and reputation. For England, Ben Curry is finally rewarded following a storming few seasons for Sale Sharks and will look to wreak havoc at the breakdown. Identical twin of the injured flanker Tom, he has similar attributes to his brother but is marginally better technically at the breakdown. Tom is bigger and more physical, but the slighter Ben offers a nice contrast to the bruising Lewis Ludlam and Alex Dombrandt.
Alongside Curry in the pack is Leicester Tigers youngster Ollie Chessum, who starts following the axing of Jonny Hill. Chessum has been around the squad over the past 12 months but this is an excellent chance to shine for the 22-year-old. Incredibly physical but with the skills and athleticism to match, he could well develop into an outstanding back five forward. He will certainly provide support in the scrum for Kyle Sinckler, who needs to repay the faith shown in him by the head coach after a difficult 18 months.
England are not the only side with tighthead problems, with Scotland starting WP Nel following Fagerson’s injury. According to Townsend, Fagerson was fit and raring to go, but evidently that was not the case with the Scots having to rely on the experienced 36-year-old. The Edinburgh prop has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance of late, playing some excellent rugby for his club, but he has a big job on his hands. Nel should keep his side stable in the set-piece, but he may have to do at least an hour as we don’t have as much confidence in Simon Berghan.
If they can attain some stability in the front-row, that makes Luke Crosbie’s job much easier. A powerhouse flanker who is a threat at the breakdown but also monstrous in the carry, he has the qualities to soften the blow of Watson’s injury. In experience alone, Watson is a big miss, but Crosbie deserves his chance having particularly impressed for Edinburgh over the past 12 months. We are looking forward to seeing him send some defenders flying.
🌪 @EdinburghRugby off to a FLYER!
🙌 @Chris8Dean with some lovely footwork after a Luke Crosbie offload!#EDIMUN pic.twitter.com/9a2NCOsTkT
— Viaplay Sports UK (@ViaplaySportsUK) December 2, 2022
Behind the scrum, Ben White is chosen ahead of Ali Price and George Horne, and has a big job in terms of service and the accuracy of his kicking game. If he can get that right, they have an in-form centre duo in Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones. You know it’s a partnership which is working well when they have their own nickname and Huwipulotu will test that English defence.
With Kyle Steyn alongside them, there is a significant Glasgow connection in the backline. Steyn is opposite Red Rose newbie Ollie Hassell-Collins and their individual duel will be fascinating. Hassell-Collins has been a standout for London Irish over the past few years and very much deserves his chance. An exciting player to watch, who also has a good off-loading game, he is especially one to keep an eye on this weekend.
It will hopefully be a fun match, especially with two talented playmakers facing off in the form of Marcus Smith and Finn Russell. The suggestion has always been that Borthwick sees Farrell as a fly-half and that, when the initial squad was named, he would be battling for the 10 shirt with Smith. However, the injuries to Henry Slade and Elliot Daly rather threw a spanner in the works as it left the Red Rose with no other ball players.
Supporters aren’t happy to see Smith and Farrell paired together, but it was Borthwick’s only real option due to the lack of playmaking capabilities elsewhere. We certainly don’t buy the notion that it is a partnership which can’t work, but we would like to see the Harlequins man take on more responsibility and be the primary decision-maker in the backline. That was starting to happen towards the end of Jones’ tenure and the 23-year-old took a big forward with an impressive display against New Zealand late last year, but he needs to build on that effort in this Six Nations.
As for Russell, the Racing 92 star was out of favour ahead of the Autumn Nations Series – omitted from the initial squad – but ended it as their first choice pivot. He was magnificent against Argentina and has received plenty of praise from his head coach leading into this tournament. The 30-year-old is in better shape this season and looks to be happier in himself, which will benefit Scotland. Russell also absolutely loves taking on the Auld Enemy, playing some of his best rugby against the Red Rose, so this battle should be an absolute humdinger.
It is a tight game to call as there are so many variables but the Red Rose do have the stronger squad on paper, with injuries to key players hampering Scotland. If fully fit, Watson, Fagerson and Graham would all start and that is three big players missing. Of course, the visitors are a more settled group and their impressive recent record should not be discounted, but we fancy the hosts to edge this Six Nations encounter. England by five points.
2022: Scotland won 20-17 in Edinburgh
2021: Scotland won 11-6 in London
2020: England won 13-6 in Edinburgh
2019: England and Scotland drew 38-38 in London
2018: Scotland won 25-13 in Edinburgh
2017: England won 61-21 in London
2016: England won 15-9 in Edinburgh
2015: England won 25-13 in London
2014: England won 20-0 in Edinburgh
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Owen Farrell (c), 11 Ollie Hassell-Collins, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Alex Dombrandt, 7 Ben Curry, 6 Lewis Ludlam, 5 Ollie Chessum, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Nick Isiekwe, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Ollie Lawrence, 23 Anthony Watson
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Kyle Steyn, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sione Tuipulotu, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ben White, 8 Matt Fagerson, 7 Luke Crosbie, 6 Jamie Ritchie (c), 5 Grant Gilchrist, 4 Richie Gray, 3 WP Nel, 2 George Turner, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Replacements: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Jamie Bhatti, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Jonny Gray, 20 Jack Dempsey, 21 George Horne, 22 Blair Kinghorn, 23 Chris Harris
Date: Saturday, February 4
Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), James Doleman (New Zealand)
TMO: Brendan Pickerill (New Zealand)
READ MORE: Ellis Genge raring to go with new England coaching staff ahead of Calcutta Cup clash