By Bea Asprey, Rugby World Writer
Stuart Lancaster’s fresh-faced England side will attempt to beat Scotland at Murrayfield for the first time since 2004 on Saturday, but although the visitors beat their hosts twice in 2011, they will have their work cut out for them if they are to overcome this fired up Scottish side. The Scots have a horrible habit of losing games in their dying minutes, but here are the reasons why I pick them as favourites to come out on top on the opening weekend of the RBS 6 Nations.
England have a combined total of just 233 caps in their starting lineup, and Lancaster has picked three Test debutants – the midfield partnership of Saracens Brad Barritt and Owen Farrell, and Northampton Saint Phil Dowson who will fill the No 8 jersey – and there are also five newcomers on the bench. Furthermore, new England captain Chris Robshaw has won just one cap so far, making him the most inexperienced skipper since Nigel Melville led the side on his debut in 1984, and this young team will have to find their Test feet fast if they are to keep up with Andy Robinson’s more experienced outfit, who have 499 Test caps between them. Lancaster’s tactic of picking four Saracens in England’s back line ensures these players are used to operating alongside one another, but they have never done so on the big stage, and expecting them to be able to live with the pace and intensity of the international game with no previous experience will be a big ask.
Scotland’s growing confidence
England laboured to both their 22-16 Six Nations and 16-12 World Cup victories over Scotland last year, a factor that will stand out in the Scots’ minds. The boys in blue will draw confidence from the fact that they nearly beat England on their home patch last season, and will be determined to shake off their ‘nearly men’ tag and grind out that win. The Scots will have the backing of a passionate and packed out Murrayfield crowd, the heat of which a number of England’s youngsters will never have experienced before. Furthermore, in Leicester’s Heineken Cup battering by Ulster Ben Youngs and Dan Cole lost their cool, and it’s essential that the more experienced heads in the team are able to remain focused.
As if the Calcutta Cup doesn’t provide any Scotland team with enough motivation to perform at their best, their last defeat at England’s hands brought them an early flight home from the World Cup, and a win on Saturday would go a long way to healing those wounds. Furthermore, Robinson has voiced his anger in recent weeks at the England players’ arrogance towards his side in New Zealand, and it’s clear that the ancient rivalry between these two nations is very much alive and well.
Robinson’s first choice of skipper was Kelly Brown, but when the back rower got injured in Saracens Heineken Cup victory over Treviso he turned to his World Cup hooker, Ross Ford. The Lion will be determined to show that he is worthy of the job and lead a successful side, and he has demanded that his team start to close out tight games and produce victories. 23-year-old Edinburgh winger Lee Jones will also be one to watch, and Scotland fans will be hoping he can bring some tries to the home score sheet.
England captain Chris Robshaw is an unknown quantity at Test level, but Lancaster will be hoping he can transfer his leadership skills that have clearly been successful for Harlequins so far this season. Although there is a youthful streak about this team, it will be important for the more experienced players such as Tom Croft, Ben Youngs and Ben Foden to help Robshaw lead the side and make decisions.
SCOTLAND V ENGLAND, MURRAYFIELD, SATURDAY 4 FEBRUARY, KICK-OFF 5pm, Live on BBC1
SCOTLAND: Rory Lamont; Lee Jones, Nick De Luca, Sean Lamont, Max Evans; Dan Parks, Chris Cusiter; Allan Jacobsen, Ross Ford (capt), Euan Murray, Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton, Alasdair Strokosch, Ross Rennie, David Denton.
Replacements: Scott Lawson, Geoff Cross, Alastair Kellock, John Barclay, Mike Blair, Greig Laidlaw, Graeme Morrison.
ENGLAND: Ben Foden; Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell, David Strettle; Charlie Hodgson, Ben Youngs; Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Mouritz Botha, Tom Palmer, Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw (capt), Phil Dowson.
Replacements: Rob Webber, Matt Stevens, Geoff Parling, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson, Jordan Turner-Hall, Mike Brown.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
VERDICT: Experience will overcome youth this time. Scotland to win by 6.
Highlights of last year’s Calcutta Cup