Defeat would be bitter pill for England to swallow
England's Tom Wood during the England captain's run at Twickenham yesterday before today's encounter with Scotland. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Scotland supporters normally head for Twickenham with all the easy confidence of lemmings approaching a cliff edge. Just twice since the second World War have their team conquered the old cabbage patch, the last time in 1983 before any of this England side were born.
The only difference now is that Scotland are under canny new management undaunted by past failures. Scott Johnson may be the most Caledonian of names but the interim coach’s pre-match utterances have been a relentless stream of antipodean optimism.
Then there is Dean Ryan, the former England enforcer who has been drafted in as a forward consultant. If anyone is equipped to point the visiting pack in precisely the right direction it is the hawk-eyed analyst from the Sky tactics truck.
The England forwards’ coach Graham Rowntree is suitably wary, conscious Ryan knows almost as much about his players’ habits as he does.
“They’ve got two astute coaches and some great players,” said Rowntree, picking out the Glasgow prop Ryan Grant as a particular “talent” worth watching. “There is nothing more daunting for me than a team coming here with nothing to lose.”
This is not what England’s buoyant supporters necessarily want to hear. Public expectation is sky high after the spectacular 38-21 win over New Zealand; last time out Scotland were beaten by Tonga.
Recent Calcutta Cup results, nevertheless, have been less clear-cut and the World Cup pool game between the two countries in Auckland in 2011 could easily have gone the other way. Tartan fortune has not been conspicuously evident.
Even rarer is a brace of Scottish wings who have already scored eye-catching tries at Twickenham. Tim Visser, the Dutchman about to make his championship debut, touched down for the Barbarians against England while Sean Maitland was part of the Crusaders backline who memorably took the Sharks apart in a Super 15 game played in London in 2011.
Scotland, in short, are a better side than many people realise, just as England are far from the “arrogant” and “pretentious” wasters the former Scottish coach Jim Telfer has labelled them.
“There’s certainly no arrogance or complacency in anything we’ve done,” Rowntree said. “We’ve got plenty of self-belief – we have to have that – but there’s no way we’re arrogant or complacent.
“ We did beat the world champions but there are still so many areas we can improve on. We know where we are as a group and what we’ve got to be better at.”
The first 20 minutes will be particularly revealing. England have not always been the fastest of starters under Stuart Lancaster and Scotland may just sense an opportunity to pierce the bubble of post-New Zealand euphoria. Chris Robshaw, the home captain, is determined not to let that happen.
“We spoke in the autumn about trying to put in an 80-minute performance and not taking 20 minutes to warm up. That’s got to be the case during this campaign.”
Add it all together and this has all the makings of a lively start to a Six Nations season of considerable intrigue. As Ryan pointed out this week, no one quite knows whether Lancaster’s team are the real deal or not.
It is a fair point which Robshaw and co are itching to address. A hard-fought victory by eight to 10 points would be a perfectly acceptable outcome, unless Johnson has some serious tricks up his sleeve.
From All Black glory to the black hole of Calcutta Cup defeat would be one hell of a steep descent.