Chill blast of reality awaits if England are caught cold again by Scots | Robert Kitson | Sport


It is the stark contrast in backdrops that makes the Six Nations so compelling. One minute England are surrounded by French accents in Paris, the next they are in Scotland for a fixture that needs no subtitles. The oldest contest in world rugby is always a good test of character, particularly when the English head north in a year with a zero at the end of it.

The grand old stories of 1990, in particular, remain as popular as ever, even though most of Saturday’s combatants were not even born when David Sole and his side made their famously slow walk out on to the Murrayfield turf. Then there was 2000, when the weather was so filthy Duncan Hodge was barely visible from the other end of the pitch as he aquaplaned over for the crucial try.

England could not win in 2010 either, having to settle for a 15-15 draw, but rectifying last Sunday’s disappointment is the chief priority of Eddie Jones’s side. It will not be easy: given the dire weather forecast and some of the careless talk from the visiting camp, it would be a supremely arrogant Sassenach who believes Scotland will pose only a limited threat to proud Eddie’s army.

Assuming Storm Ciara starts making her presence felt around kick-off, as is predicted, it will stir memories not only of Hodge’s finest hour but of the first Test of the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. Then, as now, there was not a cloud in the sky in the buildup, only for an icy southern front to whip in across the Canterbury Plains. The Lions were caught cold in every sense and the expedition never entirely recovered.

Should England plummet from the lofty heights of a World Cup final to losing their opening two championship games it will induce a similar blast of chill reality. For whatever reason they were off the pace at the Stade de France and neither coach nor captain has kicked off this tournament as surely as they would have liked. One or two of Jones’s opening-round selections defied logic while the debate as to whether Owen Farrell is his country’s best available captain is less clear-cut than it was.

Would these conversations be happening had England won the World Cup?

It is worth pondering for a second how that parallel universe might look: multiple sponsors hammering on the front door of Twickenham, Steve Borthwick opening supermarkets, George Kruis in budgie smugglers on the front cover of Vogue? If ever there was an example of the chasm between finishing first and second, the past few months have provided it.

Sam Johnson scores for in last year’s extraordinary 38-38 draw at Twickenham



Sam Johnson scores for in last year’s extraordinary 38-38 draw at Twickenham Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Maybe, though, it would have been a tricky period of adjustment either way. In the aftermath of 2003, having lifted the Webb Ellis Cup, Sir Clive Woodward was gone within a year. It was the same when England reached the 2007 final. By the following April their head coach, Brian Ashton, had been relieved of his duties. England have suffered plenty of lean times over the years but dealing with the aftermath of success has not always been their strength either.

It might help to explain the slightly unsettled mood within the England camp at the moment. Assistant coaches have just arrived or, in the case of Borthwick, are on the way out. Even their head of communications is about to move on in the middle of the championship. The team’s staccato rhythm does not feel like a total coincidence.

Some of the more bombastic rhetoric coming out of the England camp has also been cringe-inducing but how much will that matter if England win and head south with their Six Nations title chances still alive?

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Most supporters would simply settle for a performance that better reflects the ability of the players involved: an authentic, purposeful collective effort as opposed to an overly choreographed mess. With an all-Lions front five, tactically astute half-backs and plenty of pace out wide, England will surely be better than they were last Sunday.

Then again, as flagged up last week, there are two Englands: the team who stormed into a 31-0 lead in last year’s Calcutta Cup fixture and the side who had to come from behind to secure a 38-38 draw in that same game. The coach can also blow hot and cold: one minute he is berating the media for suggesting he should amend his team based on one defeat; the next he is making five changes and naming two new caps on the bench. As it happens Ben Earl is a fine prospect, a flanker about whom good judges would be nodding sagely if he had a silver fern on his chest. But, if Scotland are still in contention after an hour and Hamish Watson is heavily involved it will not be a straightforward introduction.

From a neutral perspective the hope must be that the weather is not too extreme and that Scotland, as they have done against England in the past two years, can put some pace on the ball. They should probably have beaten Ireland, lacking only composure in their opponents’ 22, but there were some encouraging signs of greater cohesion.

Stuart Hogg will not drop the ball over the try-line again and Scotland’s captain would love to seize this particular day. “On our day we can beat anyone,” said the Exeter full-back. “You saw that with England here a couple of years ago and New Zealand as well. There is a belief within the squad that, if we can nail our detail, we’ll give ourselves every opportunity to win.”

Much will depend on the referee, Pascal Gaüzère, who generally likes to encourage a contest at the breakdown. It does not require the deduction powers of a Sherlock Holmes to see Watson and co as a potential handful, particularly if Scotland cut out the penalties which undermined them in Dublin. It is also a huge game for Adam Hastings, upon whose shoulders will rest much responsibility. He is developing nicely at fly-half but England will be quietly relieved the currently exiled Finn Russell is not among the replacements and should have enough on their own bench to edge home. Sunshine on Leith? If England fall to a second successive defeat, they will be dancing in the streets of Auld Reekie regardless of the weather.



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