Six Nations: England v Scotland – Twickenham task remains daunting

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Scotland lost a bruising encounter with England at a wet and windy Murrayfield last year
Venue: Twickenham Stadium Date: Saturday, 6 February Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Coverage: Listen to commentary on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio 5 Live; Live text commentary and post-match video highlights on the BBC Sport website and app.

Fraser Brown goes by the nickname ‘Chuckles’, not so much a nod to his Kevin Bridges-esque capacity to crack you up as a piece of delicious irony. The great man has his moments of levity, though. Sadly injured, the Scotland hooker is an intense and intelligent man but don’t underestimate his ability to live up to his moniker from time to time.

Get him talking about the state of the lineout in the Calcutta Cup last season and you’ll be tickled from start to finish. He mentions the euphoria of the Murrayfield crowd as England regularly erred and kicked the ball out on the full, giving the Scots the throw-in that Brown, most of all, did not want.

It was a monsoon, remember. Wind swirling, rain lashing down. In those wretched conditions had you asked Brown to take his pick between throwing into a lineout or getting a firm kick up the rear end from Maro Itoje he’d have thrown away the ball and asked big Maro to hit him with his best shot.

In the build-up to Saturday the preamble has been all about the extraordinary 38-38 draw in 2019. The game in 2020 is worth revisiting as well, though. Within it we see the series of things that Scotland must get right if they are to stand a chance of winning in Twickenham for the first time since 1983.

It’s one of rugby’s hoariest old statistics, but it’s not going away until somebody makes it go away.

We think back a year and the memory is of England powering their way to victory late on, which they did. What we don’t tend to remember is some of the detail that went before.

The five lost Scottish lineouts in the opening 40 minutes, two of them five metres from England’s try line. The dodgy and undetected Kyle Sinckler steal on the floor when Scotland had a head of steam inside their opponent’s 22. The Stuart Hogg hesitancy in dealing with a wicked George Ford grubber that led to the scrum that brought the try that won the match.

Detail, as the coaches call it. Eddie Jones said later that England had dominated the match, which was a bit of an exaggeration, unless he was talking specifically about physicality. Scotland spent five minutes attacking England in their 22, England spent under three minutes attacking Scotland in theirs. The team with the most grunt, the better breakdown and the fewest errors won 13-6.

As Calcutta Cups go it doesn’t rank even remotely close to 2019 in terms of thrill-seeking, but every Scotland player will believe they could have won it had they not made so many mistakes. Coulda, woulda. There’s been too many of those down the years.

The game shows this kind of victory – and winning at Twickenham, fans or no fans, would be the biggest of all – is only achievable if you get so many small things right. A coughed-up lineout in the 13th minute a year ago might not have seemed all that big a deal at the time, but those are the moments that Scotland must nail.

They have another chance on Saturday. Scotland made giant strides on defence and scrum in 2020, but that’s not to say they’ve cracked it for all time. They haven’t. The game evolves. The challenges shift. The analysis gets ever more cosmic.

After spending the autumn kicking and bludgeoning their way to victory, Jamie George, the England hooker, now says they want to “take teams apart with their attack”. George says they’ve been working hard on developing their threat with ball in hand.

Balance is the buzzword for the Scots. Keep the defensive organisation, work-rate, trust and belligerence that made them, for the first time ever, the stingiest defence in the Six Nations while adding threat and unpredictability in attack.

Scotland scored seven tries and conceded five in the last Six Nations. As scrum-half Ali Price puts it, they need to double the seven while staying as close to the five as is humanly possible.

No Scottish fan would be advised to fall down the rabbit hole of England being all that vulnerable. Yes, they’re missing big carriers in Mako Vunipola, Sinckler and Manu Tuilagi. Billy Vunipola could push water up a hill for you, but he’s still not quite at full pelt following his injury. Owen Farrell hasn’t played in an age and as 10 and captain, rustiness might be a factor. And there’s no crowd.

Those are reasons to believe until you see their 23. Their depth in most positions is scary.

Jones said the other day that this is Scotland’s most important game of the season and, as such, “expectation for them is high. Maybe with 15 minutes to go in the game the expectation is going to get pretty heavy for them”.

If Jones is offering parity with 15 to go then Gregor Townsend and his players would take his hand off. Hope kills, but how can Scotland travel without feeling confident in their ability to deliver a performance when they have a team that looks capable of delivering one?

The front five all carry, Jonny Gray doing more of it now with Exeter than he ever did with Glasgow. England’s terrific Tom Curry carried more ball than any man on the field a year ago, but of the other back-rows Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie carried consistently. Matt Fagerson needs to arrive as a Test match number eight on Saturday.

Finn Russell touches down at Twickenham in 2019
Can Finn Russell find the time and space to produce some more magic at Twickenham?

What else have Scotland got? Plenty. Finn Russell’s presence makes the Calcutta Cup a pulse-quickener. There isn’t a more exciting 10 in world rugby, there isn’t a 10 who has taken England to the cleaners the way Russell did in the second half in 2019 and for much of the 80 in 2018.

Russell will be riveting, one way or another. At Racing 92 he has a monstrous pack in front of him, as much fast ball as he wants and sufficient thinking time (he doesn’t need a lot) to make his play, which is so often devastatingly good. Even with their grunt factor turned up to 11, Scotland’s pack won’t give Russell that Racing-style luxury.

He’s a risk-reward man, but just as Scotland need to find the balance between defence and attack, Russell needs the patience of a player waiting for his moment rather than forcing moments out of frustration. It’s wonderful to have to him back.

This is how we inch towards the rabbit hole, though. We look at Russell and Price and what they’re capable of, Duhan van der Merwe and Sean Maitland and the tries they can score and Stuart Hogg and the ground he can eat up. Then there’s Cameron Redpath.

In 40 Tests, Townsend has gone with 20 different centre combinations and here is another one. Redpath slipped through England’s fingers and into the loving embrace of the land of his father. He’s one of the best young inside centres to come through the system down south, a highly skilled footballer with a running game to match his distribution.

Townsend must think an awful lot of him to throw him straight in against England.

So there’s optimism for Scotland but also dread. There are grounds for encouragement but also a giant prairie of concern. Whatever happens down there (and anything other than an England win would be a considerable upset), give thanks for one thing: proper Test match rugby is back.

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