When Scotland’s attack coach, and former semi-glorious stand-off, Gregor Townsend came out early in the week with the statement “We don't have to score tries to win the game, we know we have to win the game by more than seven points but that can be done through penalties and drop-goals” the chances of Saturdays game being a feast of sevens' style, running rugby became about as likely as a Martin Johnson smile for the press. Not that Scotland can actually score tries but it would have been nice to pretend that is the ultimate plan, at least until kick off.
Having sat through the painfully blunt and fruitless attempts by Scotland to score tries against Argentina you can understand the pessimism amongst the coaching staff. Watching your fifteen selected players in dark blue play a particularly hapless game of pass-the-parcel from one touchline across to the other and back again without ever gaining so much as a yard forward was akin to an agonisingly slow form of Rugby World Cup suicide. Especially as this came off the back of watching the New Zealand v France game in which the All Blacks kept the ball so alive it was practically immortal.
But there is something about this fixture. Something that can produce the unexpected. History has shown this on more than one occasion. England are aware of this and have selected their team accordingly. A strong selection in the front five to dull the Scottish threat in the contact areas and Armitage reinstated on the wing to deal with the aerial bombardment from the Scotland fly-halves but otherwise it is business as usual for the men in white. One thing’s for sure, it will be a test of character for England, an attritional dog-fight and as much a psychological battle as anything else.
Martin Johnson, with his angry and knotted wooden staff-head of a face, knows all too well that Wales rattled them with passionate defence and a never-say-die attitude in the warm up games. He will be more than aware that the eyes of the World Cup coaches will be on them in Auckland. Graham Henry, Peter De Villiers and company will be running their own risk assessment on England and I would guess they aren’t expecting to be very worried. It’s up to England to alter that perception. Prove they are more than dwarf tossing, bungee jumping also-rans at this World Cup.
As always it’ll be a tense, exhausting and at times a frustrating encounter.
Scotland on the other hand have a chance to restore some reputations after the disappointment against the Pumas. Andy Robinson has gone for a quicker set of players with a view to shifting the ball around a bit more. Mike Blair is back in at scrum-half to add some zip and Sean Lamont has been moved in from exile on the wing to centre up with Joe Ansbro in a bid to worry the potentially unbalaced English centre pairing of Tuilagi and Tindall. Richie Vernon also will start at number eight, a young player with the pace of a winger, the body of a second row and the face of Nicholas Lyndhurst. Hopefully he can improve on his decision making that has previously let him down at this level.
As always it’ll be a tense, exhausting and at times a frustrating encounter. The set pieces will be huge and the kicking duel, although time consuming, will have a massive impact. It would also be just like Scotland to beat England but by one point less than they need to stay in the competition. England will need to be wary of the Scots’ will to win though and the team that wants it the most will fare the best. Either way we’ll know a lot more about this England team’s mental toughness by the final whistle on Saturday.
The permeations are several and tiring. Essentially Scotland need to win by more than eight points to be sure of progression, which is a huge ask but not impossible. England can still go out but it’s unlikely. The requisite St George tub-thumping has already come in from Ben Youngs and Big Martin but whether the England squad truly feel the desire to beat Scotland will have the biggest bearing on the outcome. They are going to have to really want it because Scotland will test their honesty for the full 80 minutes, if not their try line.
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