England’s evolution under Eddie Jones reaches a crucial stage at Murrayfield — a venue where they have all too often struggled to subdue a Scotland team that is desperate to prove they are more than Six Nations also-rans.
Scotland came agonisingly close to knocking over New Zealand and thumped Australia 53-24 in the same autumn series to highlight their attacking potency under Gregor Townsend. However, they now come up against an England team that has delivered 24 wins in 25 matches under Jones, whose tenure started two years ago with a scratchy Calcutta Cup victory.
Albeit unconvincing, that win helped maintain England’s domination over the Scots, who have not beaten the Auld Enemy at Murrayfield since 2008. That match was played in appalling conditions and featured a first-half penalty that made Jonny Wilkinson the highest points scorer in rugby history, although he was replaced 10 minutes from time as England spluttered to defeat.
Since that loss, England have gone 10 games unbeaten against Scotland. In the last three clashes in Edinburgh, there have been patchy wins by margins of 13-6 (2012), 20-0 (2014) and 15-9 (2016). Scotland’s performance in 2014 was particularly abject as they gave away 16 penalties and missed 27 tackles.
Like England, they are a very different team now, but there are serious doubts over Scotland’s ability to consistently deliver the kind of results that have allowed their opponents to rise to No2 in the world rankings.
Jones is hoping to guide his men to an historic third successive Six Nations title and, having seen an improvement of “40 per cent” in the fitness of the players who took part in his first training session, the head coach is confident they will be the stronger unit in the final 20 minutes on Saturday to secure a vital win.
While the ‘Beast from the East’ will ensure single-figure temperatures at Murrayfield, the rain and strong winds of that desperate day in 2008 should be absent — and with England’s replacements using battery-powered tracksuit bottoms that generate heat up to 40C, the visitors can expect a more comfortable experience this time.
It will be very different on the pitch, with Scotland, buoyed by a 32-26 win over France, believing they can repeat the quality of performance that pushed New Zealand so hard in November.
However, their failure against Wales in Cardiff revealed a paucity of attacking ideas that England’s analysts will have been studying closely. Wales did not allow Scotland to function, thanks to their forward effort and suffocating defence, which forced numerous errors.
England’s back-line defence will be led by Owen Farrell and, together with the fleet-footed Jonathan Joseph, a hat-trick scorer against Scotland last season, they will aim to cut down the time and space the opposition needs. That is why Townsend has gone out of his way to flag up how close — or over — the offside line the England players stand, in the hope that referee Nigel Owens will police this contentious aspect of the game with extra vigilance.
England will aim to dominate Scotland up front, with the returning Nathan Hughes expected to make a significant impact as a ball carrier, while also helping the scrum deliver the kind of pressure that will have the Scotland back row tied down rather than causing problems at the breakdown. Townsend is right to praise the visitors, stating: “They have a very good defence, an excellent set-piece and like to get 10 and 12 on the ball as much as possible in attack. Taking on England is going to be a huge challenge and we are well aware that only our very best will be good enough.”
Unfortunately for Townsend, his own team’s evolution is still embryonic and England’s self-belief and physical strength will keep that dominant run over Scotland going.