Scotland v England preview: Gregor Townsend’s charges to crush Auld Enemy’s Grand Slam dream and extend incredible Calcutta Cup run

Colin Newboult
Scotland centre Sione Tuipulotu and Ollie Lawrence of England.

Scotland centre Sione Tuipulotu and Ollie Lawrence of England.

The Calcutta Cup rarely disappoints but this is a match with extra significance.

Two games in and Scotland’s title hopes are already on the line, having suffered the immense disappointment of losing in agonising fashion to France. Over the previous two years, a 20-16 defeat to Fabien Galthie’s men may have been seen in a positive light, but not this one.

Against a Les Bleus side that, due to a variety of factors, are nowhere near top form, Gregor Townsend’s men had an incredible opportunity, but once again they failed to grasp that chance when it really mattered.

Irrespective of the controversial late try call which went against them, the Scots should have had the match wrapped up by that point and will rue their slackness when 13-3 ahead in the first half. They allowed France to score straight from the restart and, from that point on, the hosts were drawn into a scrappy encounter.

That choker tag is not going away soon as they saw their Six Nations Grand Slam hopes end when well set to head to their final game against Ireland unbeaten.

Instead, they could well be going into the next fallow week having lost two of their first three – both at home – when they have face the Auld Enemy this weekend, who have won two from two.

However, that record gives a false impression of their campaign so far with the Red Rose taking on the two weakest teams in the competition – and only just scraping through.

Head coach Steve Borthwick knows that they need vast improvements in pretty much every facet but they have at least given themselves an opportunity to win the title.

They should be better for the extra two weeks of preparation while Ollie Lawrence’s return is a boost and provides England with some much-needed punch in the midfield.

Borthwick’s charges are not favourites, though, and for good reason, with Scotland winning the last three matches between these sides, and four of the previous six. The hosts are also a well-established unit in comparison to their opponents, who are still sorting out their combinations, and that gives them the edge at Murrayfield.

Where the game will be won

In simple terms, this weekend will very much be about attack versus defence. How will Scotland deal with England’s blitz? And can the Red Rose’s new system stop Finn Russell from deciding the game? Saturday’s match will be like a game of chicken, where the team that yields tactically loses.

Wales enjoyed some success going from deep at Twickenham, finding space on the edge and making plenty of ground down the field. No doubt Russell and co. will want to test their opponents out in the same way and we won’t be surprised if they shift the ball early on, even in their own 22.

Of course, the Scots won’t overdo it and if the visitors have their number they will play for territory and look to move up the pitch via their kicking game but, if Townsend’s men are finding holes, it will be a real test of England’s nerve.

They have not yet diverted from their structure, even when it hasn’t been working, but Scotland are the best attacking side they have faced so far. Borthwick’s outfit have had two more weeks to improve their rearguard and fix the little issues which were exploited by Italy and Wales, but it takes a lot of mental resolve to persist with the same idea when you are being cut apart.

Last time they met

What they said

Scotland scrum coach Pieter de Villiers wants to give the supporters something to cheer with them set to play their final home game of the Six Nations.

“It’s probably the last game in Edinburgh before the November series,” he said. “It’s the last opportunity to play in front of our home crowd. It’s always a special game to look forward to, and a great rivalry.

“We do respect England a lot, they’re currently ranked above us in the world rankings. They’ve had a very solid World Cup, they’ll always be tough up front, so it’s a team we respect.

“We know it will be another physical Calcutta Cup, but we’re definitely looking forward to the challenge.”

In their last match at Murrayfield, the Scots were controversially denied a win after they had a late try disallowed.

“It almost feels long ago,” De Villiers added. “A good bit of time off was good for the team. There’s obviously been frustration and disappointment. I thought we’d done enough to win that game.

“That’s the way rugby goes, sometimes the result doesn’t go your way and the decision doesn’t go your way. That’s the way it is. We’ve definitely moved on from it.”

England number eight Ben Earl insists that they are ready for the cauldron of playing at Murrayfield and any of the niggle that the Scotland team might bring on Saturday.

“There’s a resilience in us, for sure,” he said.

“There is a good group of experienced players in this team now – Jamie (George), George Ford, Joe Marler, Dan Cole, Ellis Genge. Those guys are all different characters, but they’ve seen all the curve balls in the past.

“And then you’ve also got a group of lads who might not have played a load of Test rugby but who have played a lot of club rugby in some great games and in some great stadiums. So I’d say the group, in terms of expectation, is probably as prepared as any to deal with anything that’s thrown at us.

“You have to love it. If you don’t love it, then you’re playing the wrong sport at the wrong level. I absolutely love it. We’ve certainly spoken about the kind of Scotland are, what a good team they are, how good they are at home.

“It’s a tough place to play and we’ve definitely touched upon the trend of results over the last three or four years.

“But in terms of motivating factors, that’s one of many that we’ve got. We know the journey that we’re on as a team, in terms of what we’re trying to grow and evolve into. And that’s as much of a motivating factor as playing those guys.”

Players to watch

He is always a key player but Finn Russell will have a particularly vital role this weekend as they look to cut through that English defence. The 31-year-old has often stepped up in this clash in the past, producing a number of classy moments, and he will once again be a huge threat to Borthwick’s charges. Russell will look to make the Red Rose players doubt themselves by putting the likes of Duhan van der Merwe and Blair Kinghorn into space.

Van der Merwe is another to enjoy playing England and he will have fond memories of last year where he scored one of the great individual tries in the Six Nations. His power and pace is difficult to stop, and he will get plenty of opportunities if the hosts can get the ball to him out wide, which is where the space will be. Alongside the returning Kinghorn, they will be a real danger to their opponents throughout the 80 minutes.

It is not just about the backline, however, and it is interesting to see Jamie Ritchie return to the XV at blindside flanker. The former captain has not been in the best of form since the Rugby World Cup but, like Russell, he tends to play well against England. Ritchie’s nuisance value around the ruck is invaluable, while he will be a threat over the ball, but he just needs to watch his discipline. That’s what arguably resulted in him being dropped for the France clash.

Ritchie will hope to give the opposition scrum-half, Danny Care, a torrid time at the breakdown, with the 37-year-old coming into the team in place of the injured Alex Mitchell. Care is still as lively as ever, despite edging towards 40, but he needs a big game as Mitchell was excellent in the first two rounds. The Northampton Saints man has kicked superbly and Borthwick will require the same from the experienced half-back, with it so important to the English game plan.

They will look to put pressure on Scotland aerially, which was where Freddie Steward was so effective against Wales. Surprisingly, Steward has been dropped – particularly with the Scots kicking the most of any Six Nations team this year – which means George Furbank comes into the side. On the face of it, the decision looks strange, but it could be a case of the coaching staff looking to put the Scots off their stride.

Russell and scrum-half Ben White, seeing Furbank as the full-back, may be tempted to send even more high bombs up to test the 27-year-old, thus moving away from where they would really hurt the Red Rose. Equally – and probably the more likely reason – Borthwick may simply want more of a running and playmaking threat in the wider channels. England didn’t really test Italy and Wales defensively, so Furbank, who has been playing incredibly well this season, offers more pace and creativity.

Main head-to-head

Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones are now a well-established pair at international level, so much so that they have their own nickname – ‘Huwipulotu’ – and they will be critical in trying to open up the English defence. Although they are both big, strong and physical, they are also skilful. In particular, Tuipulotu has an excellent passing game to go with his strength on the gain line, while Jones off-loads well out of the tackle.

Equally, their lines of running are elite and that is where they will test the new English pair of Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade. The duo have combined before – in last year’s Six Nations – but it has been over a year and their most recent game as a partnership came in the 53-10 hammering by France. Borthwick will hope Scotland don’t have as much success cutting through that midfield axis as Les Bleus did.

Slade certainly has a big job on his hands defensively as he looks to shoot out of the line and put pressure on the decision-making of Russell, while also closing down the fly-half’s options. He has got it wrong on occasion but the Exeter Chiefs centre is gradually improving in that area of the game and will be better for the previous two matches. Slade will also like having the physicality of Lawrence alongside him. The Red Rose finally have some bulk in that backline, which will help them on both sides of the ball.


We can’t really see past the hosts, despite their ‘ability’ to capitulate under pressure. Irrespective of what they do in the other Six Nations matches, they always seem to show up when England are their opponents and, as a result, the recent form against the Red Rose has been impressive. Townsend’s men are the more cohesive side and have the weapons to really hurt the visitors. Scotland by 10 points.

Previous results

2023: Scotland won 29-23 in London
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 15-6 in Edinburgh
2015: England won 25-13 in London
2014: England won 20-0 in Edinburgh

The teams

Scotland: 15 Blair Kinghorn, 14 Kyle Steyn, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Sione Tuipulotu, 11 Duhan van der Merwe, 10 Finn Russell (cc), 9 Ben White, 8 Jack Dempsey, 7 Rory Darge (cc), 6 Jamie Ritchie, 5 Scott Cummings, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 George Turner, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Replacements: 16 Ewan Ashman, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Elliot Millar-Mills, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Andy Christie, 21 George Horne, 22 Ben Healy, 23 Cameron Redpath

England: 15 George Furbank, 14 Tommy Freeman, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Lawrence, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Danny Care, 8 Ben Earl, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Ethan Roots, 5 Ollie Chessum, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Jamie George (c), 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Theo Dan, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Will Stuart, 19 George Martin, 20 Chandler Cunningham-South, 21 Ben Spencer, 22 Fin Smith, 23 Immanuel Feyi-Waboso

Date: Saturday, February 24
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Chris Busby (Ireland), Eoghan Cross (Ireland)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

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