Expert Witness: Chris Paterson on how Scotland can negate England’s ‘exceptional’ line speed in Calcutta Cup

James While
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Chris Paterson previews the Scotland v England clash.

Chris Paterson previews the Scotland v England clash.

With the oldest rivalry in rugby about to enter a new chapter this weekend at Murrayfield for the Calcutta Cup, this week’s Expert Witness is former Scotland skipper and record points scorer Chris Paterson, a man that took part in 12 matches against the auld enemy.

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In Round Two we had ex-Wales prop Adam Jones join Expert Witness and this week, we have legendary Scotland full-back Paterson on to discuss Scotland v England at Murrayfield.


“History is the driver,” explained Paterson.

“Everybody’s so aware of that rivalry, especially growing up. Everybody dreams of playing for Scotland against England, whether it’s football or rugby or whatever sport you’re playing. So, when you’re dreaming of kicking the winning goal or scoring the winning try, it’s always against the English – it’s part of your Scottish DNA!

“I’ve been lucky enough to go out and do it and every time we face each other there’s this different atmosphere and for the players it’s a positive difference. And of course, there’s just so much more scrutiny and a real spotlight on the weekend. I mean, there’ll be people who never watched or really have an interest in rugby, but they’ll take an interest in this match, and you feel that responsibility as a player. I used to try and separate myself from it and treat it like any other game, but you could only control your own moments, your feelings and your emotions and try and feed off the unique atmosphere.

“When you feel that the raw emotion coming back from the stands and you see the people lining the streets on the way the ground in the bus, it’s pretty special and it reminds you of your responsibility and the expectation of your countrymen, all of whom have shared the same dream of that winning goal or try that we did as kids,” smiled the former captain.

“I had three successes as a player from my 12 games and we faced some amazing English teams during my involvement which spanned from 2000 to 2011. That 2000 match is a fond memory; I remember we’d had a poor season that year. We’d underperformed against France, Italy and Ireland and this was Grand Slam decider for England, and we hadn’t won a game, so nobody even gave us a hope.

“It was an utterly filthy day, and we were tactically really astute. I mean it was bloody freezing and absolutely miserable weather. At the back it was Craig Moir, me and Glenn Metcalfe and we literally never touched the ball all afternoon, but Andy Nicol and Duncan Hodge played real canny wet weather rugby and we managed to just sneak over the line. I well remember Gregor Townsend telling Jason White and I that as a perspective he’d been waiting for seven years for this moment and for us to savour it as we’d done it on our first attempt.”

Leadership key

“In terms of leadership it’s probably different now as the game was less analytical. There were still analytical elements to it, but the number one priority was the emotional factor and there’s always a balance between that emotional charge and going too far and conceding penalties and cards. As a leader and as a captain, you have to find the right balance; emotional intelligence, calmness, and it’s probably about the way you manage individuals.

“Some of the guys you’re going to wind up but with other guys you got to say, ‘listen, we have to take a step back and calm down’- and I always felt that you had to temper that emotion and capture a balance. Within 30 seconds, you have to make a decision – it might be the kick-off, you could be making a call to kick for goal or corner – so it’s key to get everybody at the right emotional level and let them know they’re the decision makers but for them to be calm enough to make a good decision based upon rugby intellect,” Paterson explained.

Generational team

Many good rugby judges have believed for some years that this iteration of Scotland is amongst its finest rugby teams. Blessed with a world class backline and some powerful forwards, there’s few teams that the Scots fear but is there a concern that, after a World Cup where they struggled to overcome an unfavourable group draw, that time is running out and that there’s a need for outcomes?

Paterson believes there’s some truth in that logic: “I think it’s very difficult. People measure success and trophies in outcomes and that’s why we play that game.

“We haven’t had really tangible success since the Championship-winning side in 1999. Sure, there’s been some high-quality teams and some great one-off performances over the period since but ultimately, yeah, you’re right.

“I certainly think it’s harder to win a trophy now than it ever has been in terms of the fine margins in international rugby but on the flip side I think the northern hemisphere competition is stronger than before and we’re seeing the best sides regularly turn over the best of the Rugby Championship teams, which shows the health of the game in the Six Nations.

“So, I think it’s really important to aim for tangible success. The players understand this but also the fans must understand how much progress has been made but yeah, grabbing something as a trophy that demonstrates that progress is absolutely key.”

Calcutta clash

“There’s no doubt this one is going to be decided by the guys up front. There’s going to be few points on offer and this will be about controlling tempo and getting a real foothold in terms of a set-piece and breakdown platform. One player I want to single out is big Grant Gilchrist, a player that goes under the radar but was brilliant last weekend in shutting down the French rolling maul. I’ve known him since his academy days – a real athlete who also played good basketball. He’s put on a lot of muscle since then and his one-on-one with Maro Itoje will go a long way to decide how the forward battle goes.

“For the backline, it’s about doing the right things at the right time and not trying to force things. There’s so much pace and talent there but it’ll rely upon 15 players making great decisions and using the intelligence of our brilliant half-backs to make sure we’re doing things in the right area of the pitch rather than forcing it from the wrong areas. There’s no doubt the quality is there – but you have to stick to system and be patient, especially against a side like England who’ve demonstrated huge resilience in the way they’ve played under Steve Borthwick.

“I’m particularly interested in how Scotland counters and deals with this new Felix Jones engineered defence. The speed of England in the rush is quite exceptional, but the system is a narrow one that requires huge work-rate in self-recycle and the ability to get around from the back pod onto the end of the defensive line if the opposition get phase width.

“I can see Sione Tuipulotu standing a lot at first receiver to take the ball up into contact or offload, with Finn Russell working at 12 or 13 to use his passing distance to get around the English rush speed. Sione has a huge work-rate but key to his play is he has the full skills to keep the English defence guessing if he’s crashing, offloading or passing. You then have the variety option of a wing coming in off the blindside into the centres at pace, a move you’ve seen many times with Kyle Steyn and Duhan van der Merwe and with Russell’s passing accuracy you can bet that the Scottish focus will be getting around the edge of that narrow but fast defence.”

Focal battle

“I’ve mentioned Gilchrist and Itoje up front, but the single focal battle on the pitch will be at 13 where Huw Jones and Henry Slade will go head-to-head, two very skillful playmaking centres. Slade is a fantastic player with ball in hand but at times he can get out of shape in D – either closing a shoulder off or rushing out of his own line. His concentration is absolutely key to the English effort and Slade will know that Jones has the gas and step to exploit any tiny error in defensive shape and I feel whichever of these two comes out on top in the individual battle will see themselves on the winning side.

“But in the final analysis, this is a big challenge for England. The last six matches in the Calcutta Cup have seen only one win for them and a scraped draw in that manic game at Twickenham. With the passion of the occasion and a fantastic home support I’m saying it’ll be another Scottish win by a score – 19-12 if you have to push me, with tries at an absolute premium,” Paterson concluded.

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