Tuesday 27 June 2017

Resurgent Scots set Jones toughest Twickenham test

Record-chasing England will look to turn screw at scrum time to take sting out of visitors' attack and deny them first London win in 34 years

England's Owen Farrell. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
England's Owen Farrell. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Mick Cleary

England have manned the Twickenham barricades in the knowledge that they are facing a Scotland side armed with talent rather than mere rhetoric, fully primed for a tilt at their first victory at the stadium since 1983.

Eddie Jones has been prickly and confrontational, attributes that he knows his team must deliver if they are to deal with the stiffest challenge they have faced at the stadium since he took over.

News that Owen Farrell remains a doubt with a leg injury has only narrowed the differentials. On that rests so much. There is tension in the spring-like air, a sense that at this time of renewal we should welcome the rebirth of the Calcutta Cup as a contest of equals. There has been no goading or lazy talk of English arrogance for the simple reason that the game is the thing, not history or tribalism.

Small wonder that England flanker James Haskell talks of the need for "this team full of desire. . . to go out and seize the opportunity with all guns blazing, to make it count, to make it happen".

Nothing less will suffice. This is a proper Test match, not a staging post to a record, a Triple Crown or a title. Those are consequences of the tussle, not the reason for it. It promises to be vivid, bracing and exacting.

That England have arrived at this point, on the brink of significant landmarks such as a world record-equalling haul of consecutive victories and a championship-best run by any country, is remarkable given the air of imperfection that surrounds them, which they acknowledge themselves.

They are serial winners (17 in a row) but they are incomplete. They battle and they hang on in there like no other, and still they come up short of the exalted standards that they set for themselves.

They are record-setters but have yet to prove themselves world-beaters. Oh, to have such inadequacies.

This match will tell us so much: whether, in essence, England are within grasp of greatness, of setting the agenda through the sweep and majesty of their play the way the All Blacks have done and do, of making others prick up their ears at the notice that England are in town.

Perhaps all that is beyond them but, equally, such a high-profile platform, with huge interest and terrestrial TV exposure, would be just the launch-pad to silence the cynics and maybe even quell the doubts that might lurk within. Carpe diem, as Haskell puts it.

England's attack has fired only intermittently. Scotland's has been the darling of the masses, easy on the eye and effective, too, with Stuart Hogg a roll-up, roll-up attraction, mesmerising with his slick footwork and quicksilver hands, a threat throughout. And Hogg has players around him that he can liberate and inspire, be it wings Tim Visser and Tommy Seymour, or encouraging the best from the likes of fly-half Finn Russell, who knows that if he finds a scintilla of space, then Hogg is the man to exploit it.

We have yet to speak of England in the same tone, but they do have potency, and certainly on the bench, from where the game, fore as well as aft, will probably be decided.

With Anthony Watson, Danny Care, Ben Te'o (who will start at No 12 if Farrell is unfit) as well as the thunderous double-whammy of the Vunipola brothers in reserve, it is a safe bet that England will finish strongly.

Plus, there is much more to come from the England backline.

There will be hordes of Scots heading to Twickenham with legitimate hopes of an upset, but only if there is a limited number of scrums in the game. It was the power of the French forwards that eventually demolished Scotland a month ago. England have the same capacity.

If there are fewer than six to eight scrums, Scotland might be able to find the oxygen to survive. Any more, and England ought to be able to turn the screw.

The fact that Scotland have the faster, more mobile back row, with Hamish Watson scurrying and scavenging,will not come into play if the white-shirted brutes smash their way to dominance. If there is ball with which to play, the Scottish trio will be in clover.

And so to Farrell. Suffice to say he will be missed if he does not pass muster; for his presence, for his passing and for his goal-kicking. George Ford's place-kicking is not of the same calibre.

This is a once-in-a-generation Calcutta Cup. Whatever your persuasion, it is there to be savoured. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

England - M Brown; J Nowell, J Joseph, O Farrell, E Daly; G Ford, B Youngs; J Marler, D Hartley (capt), D Cole, J Launchbury, C Lawes, M Itoje, J Haskell, N Hughes. Reps: J George, M Vunipola, K Sinckler, T Wood, B Vunipola, D Care, B Te'o, A Watson.

Scotland - S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, A Dunbar, T Visser; F Russell, A Price; G Reid, F Brown, Z Fagerson, R Gray, J Gray, J Barclay (capt), H Watson, R Wilson. Reps: R Ford, A Dell, S Berghan, T Swinson, C du Preez, H Pyrgos, D Weir, M Bennett.

Ref - M Raynal (France).

England v Scotland,

Live, RTE/ITV, 4.0

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