Friday 24 November 2017

Stakes higher than ever for England in Calcutta Cup

England vice-captain Billy Vunipola has a vital role to play for Eddie Jones in the Six Nations (Getty Images)
England vice-captain Billy Vunipola has a vital role to play for Eddie Jones in the Six Nations (Getty Images)

Mick Cleary

Taste buds have been whetted, not sated by the World Cup, a tournament that reached out and embraced a new constituency, one that arrives at the Six Nations Championship in thrall to the sense of rich possibility that lies at the heart of the annual European carnival.

It is tribal, it is ritualistic and its appeal shows no sign of dimming to judge by the English hordes flooded into Edinburgh yesterday with not a sliver of World Cup angst troubling their souls, intent only on creating hangovers of a more appealing kind.

Rather like a reckless, ruinous night in bad company, England's demise is now only a hazy memory, and a new adventure awaits. Small wonder that British astronaut Major Tim Peake was brought in on the act, pictured from afar yesterday with an RBS-branded ball. Quite right. The championship has been flying high for many years.

From Paris to Edinburgh and on to Dublin tomorrow, international rugby is awakening from its post-World Cup hibernation. Some might scoff at the quality of the rugby served up in the northern hemisphere but they will not be among the couple of hundred thousand who throng the stadiums, or the millions who will figuratively lay down their towels early on the weekend to ensure they get uninterrupted access to a sport being beamed into so many homes through terrestrial broadcasters.

Rugby has a unique hold on the sporting consciousness for the next seven weeks, TV opening up the market place across the various territories. It is now up to the Six Nations cast to deliver.

England's changing of the guard has brought a fresh animus to their particular story. Failure has brought renewed opportunity, disappointment has crystallised the need for results at all costs. That is Eddie Jones' remit.

Success is all that matters, silverware is the booty that must be brought back to Twickenham. The stakes are high, for yet another runners-up slot will be deemed a failure.

That is why this particular rendition of the Calcutta Cup is so fascinating.

England are in a state of flux, with new coach, new captain, and style unknown, while Scotland appear to be on the rise. They have a settled side, one that shows only two changes from the team who rattled Australia to their core in the World Cup quarter-final, with plenty of heft up front, where tighthead prop WP Nel has proved such a major asset in the scrummage, and a potent array of try-scoring talent behind with trickery on offer from the likes of Stuart Hogg or zip from Tommy Seymour.

This will be no routine assignment for England even if it is eight years since a Scottish captain got his hands on the Calcutta Cup, and, remarkably, 12 years since a try was scored against England at Murrayfield.

Those damning statistics are in urgent need of revision and Vern Cotter's team look equipped to challenge that pitiful ledger of account.

It was notable at the eve-of-match press conference that hooker Ross Ford should comment on the need for his team-mates "to create chaos". A game with pace and tempo, an unstructured whizz-bang affair, suits the Scottish psyche as well as its personnel, as they showed so thrillingly against the Wallabies.

Cotter's selection has only enhanced that feeling with two natural opensides, John Barclay and John Hardie, in the back-row, men primed to scavenge as the heavyweight England pack is moved around a Murrayfield pitch mercifully free from the worm infestation that blighted this fixture two years ago.

England have every right, though, to travel with their own modest reserves of self-belief. They have been among the front-runners for four years and that sort of experience does not simply disappear.

Their pack is stocked with players who have all helped their clubs thrive in Europe, every one of them a quarter-finalist in either of the competitions.

That speaks of substance and given that winds whistled and rains tumbled from dreek skies yesterday, their presence will be a significant asset for England.

Their set piece has been slated. Time for the fightback, with big games required from new vice-captain, No 8 Billy Vunipola, as well as discarded captain Chris Robshaw on the blindside.

As for Dylan Hartley, he needs to play hard. Meaningful captaincy is a thing of deed not word.

From Hartley at the sharp end to Mike Brown at the rear, through half-backs Danny Care and George Ford with devil in their genes, there is a spiky edge to this England team.

Factor in, too, that there is a playmaker at inside centre in Owen Farrell, an injury-induced selection but one that gives England options, as well as a sizeable boot (along with that of left-footer Brown) to send the white shirts into the right areas of the field. Scotland will have to graft for position and possession.

England's defence too will be in good order with Farrell as point-man, well versed in the systems of new coach Paul Gustard.

"Owen's competitiveness and desire to win, along with a brilliant game awareness, is there for the group to respond to," said Gustard.

Jones has not spoken of any stylistic traits, of any development plans, of nurturing the three uncapped players on the bench.

There is only one objective at Murrayfield - travelling home with the Calcutta Cup. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

England - M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, O Farrell, J Nowell; G Ford, D Care; J Marler, D Hartley (capt), D Cole, J Launchbury, G Kruis, C Robshaw, J Haskell, B Vunipola. Reps: J George, M Vunipola, P Hill, C Lawes, J Clifford, B Youngs, A Goode, O Devoto.

Scotland - S Hogg; S Maitland, M Bennett, M Scott, T Seymour; F Russell, G Laidlaw (capt); A Dickinson, R Ford, WP Nel, R Gray, J Gray, J Barclay, J Hardie, D Denton. Reps: S McInally, G Reid, Z Fagerson, T Swinson, B Cowan, S Hidalgo-Clyne, D Weir, D Taylor.

Ref - J Lacey (IRFU)

England v Scotland, Live, RTE 2/BBC 1, 4.50

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