Saturday, 14 March 2015

Six Nations Preview - England v Scotland

There are some things that fall into the bracket of ‘timeless classics’.  ‘The Wall’ album by Pink Floyd is one example.  An Aston Martin DB5 is another.  My 2005 Toyota Aygo is, sadly, not one.  But one sporting fixture that makes it into the privileged group, is undoubtedly England v Scotland the battle of the badly behaved brothers.  We’ve all grown up hearing and learning about the squabbles between the neighbours in times past (usually instigated by the ‘big’ brother south of the wall) but these two have also been doing battle on the rugby field since 1871.  And at Twickenham, we’re treated to another episode on Saturday afternoon.

England walk into this one on the back of a defeat against a tactically flawless Irish side, having been thoroughly out-fought and out-thought in all the crucial areas, but that loss did follow three undoubtedly positive performances away against Wales and at home against Italy.  Stuart Lancaster, his hand forced by injury, has stumbled across a group of players who have proven themselves to me more than just ‘fillers’ whilst the established names make it off the treatment table – guys like George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson are established starters, and with Manu Tuilagi still to return, England finally look like a side capable of taking on any and all comers.  But they are running out of time to prove it.

The ingredients of promising displays but resounding failure may form a familiar, and bitter, concoction for most Scots (and they have stronger palates than most) but, under Vern Cotter, they should be feeling optimistic.  They have at their helm one of the premier coaches in European, if not world, rugby and – alongside the traditionally strong back row and solid pack they have a backline that can really play.  We all know about the quicksilver running of Stuart Hogg, but now they have the talents of Sean Maitland and Finn Russell to compliment him and a centre combination which finally poses more threat than a bag of bunnies.  The missing Alex Dunbar is a blow, but Matt Scott is no tame replacement.  Scotland no longer hopes, she believes.  But she doesn’t yet expect.

And don’t expect this fixture to go out of fashion before Saturday evening.

England Team News

England have made two changes to the run-on side that lost to Ireland in Dublin two weeks ago.  Mike Brown has made a recovery from the concussion he suffered against Italy and replaces Alex Goode at full-back. Goode was tested all afternoon by an aerial bombardment from the Irish half-backs and Brown can expect similar treatment on Saturday.  Courtney Lawes will play for England for the first time since November as he comes back from an ankle injury that has plagued him.   George Kruis is out of the team at the expense of Lawes, and with a place on the bench for Geoff Parling, Kruis drops out of the 23 completely.

Starting Line up:  15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 1 Joe Marler, 2 Dylan Hartley, 3 Dan Cole, 4 Dave Attwood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 6 James Haskell, 7 Chris Robshaw, 8 Billy Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Tom Wood, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees

Key Player
Courtney Lawes.  The Saints second row has returned from a lengthy absence to take his place within the engine room of the English pack – and it’s a massive return for a number of reasons, despite the very commendable efforts of George Kruis in his stead.  Lawes brings the experience and brutal physicality to the side that Kruis perhaps doesn’t have in his locker at the moment, but he also brings a telepathic understanding with Dylan Hartley to lineout, which has been unusually shaky so far.  Hartley himself is under pressure after three pretty poor displays this Spring, but Lawes should certainly help see off the rather large double threat of the Gray brothers at the set piece – an area where the Scots will be sniffing blood.

Scotland Team News

Greg Laidlaw captains a side that sees the return of fly-half Finn Russell, who has seen out his suspension for taking out Dan Biggar in the air when Scotland hosted Wales earlier in the month. There are four other changes to the side that lost to Italy as David Denton, Jim Hamilton, Matt Scott and Dougie Fife are all named to run out in London.  Denton makes his first appearance in this season's Six Nations while Fife - who scored a try from the bench against France – and Scott are named in the starting team for the first time.

Starting Line up:  15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (capt), 1 Alasdair Dickinson, 2 Euan Murray, 3 Ross Ford, 4 Jim Hamilton, 5 Jonny Gray, 6 Robert Harley, 7 Blair Cowan, 8 David Denton.
Subs: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Ryan Grant, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Johnnie Beattie, 21 Adam Ashe, 22 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 23 Greig Tonks.

Key Player
Finn Russell.  I won’t pretend to be an expert on the diminutive fly half, having not seen a lot of him prior to the tournament, but boy has he impressed...when he’s not being sent off for pole-axing people in mid-air, that is.  He looks to have that uncoachable quality of having a test-match temperament – he plays for his country like he does for his club.  Of course, because of the step up in quality, it doesn’t always come off, but he has the ability to move on and not let it negatively affect his game.  And for a small guy, he’s a pretty tough nugget as well.  Cotter’s men will be looking to Russell to try and frustrate the English by pinning them back deep, as Sexton did so effectively two weeks ago.

Key Battle
Billy Vunipola v Dave Denton.  The return of Denton is huge for the Scots. I’m a big fan of Johnny Beattie but he hasn’t been hitting the heights – or making the yards, to put it more accurately – that we’ve come to expect.  Denton offers that power and explosive physicality – but he’s up against one of the leading ball carriers in the tournament in Billy Vunipola, a man who takes power to a whole new level.  Inevitably these battles between the two oldest rivals in rugby end up in a ‘muscle-off’, and Denton has to step up to the plate and make the same dents that Vunipola makes if his side are to have any chance of winning.

Both sides have come into this promising a backlash but only one side is going to actually deliver.  There are fascinating battles all over the park but in the crucial ones – the scrum, Robshaw v Cowan, Vunipola v Denton and Ford v Russell – I think that England have the edge.  I have no doubt that the visitors will fight tooth and nail because they have legitimately made progress under Cotter but haven’t earned the results that they should have done, but England should be too good by the end of the 80 minutes.  Expect a tight first 40 though.  England by 12.

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