"Historically, it looks as if we have got something against going to Twickenham," muses Jim Telfer, the last Scotland coach to savour victory at the old cabbage patch in 1983.
Telfer was a couple of weeks shy of his 43rd birthday then, approaching the golden period of his decorated career. Michael Jackson's Billie Jean was number one, Margaret Thatcher was a few months away from being re-elected British prime minister and Gregor Townsend was a nine-year-old schoolboy in Galashiels.
The intervening 38 years – 10 more than the next longest winless run of any country at a rival’s home in the championship’s entire history – have seen several generations of Scottish players come and go without a Twickenham victory on their CVs.
Often forgotten amid the biennial nostalgia is that the 1983 match was in effect a wooden spoon decider. Scotland’s 22-12 win, only a fourth ever at Twickenham, merely lifted them to fourth in that year’s Five Nations after three earlier defeats, leaving England bottom of the pile instead. It did, however, prove a stepping-stone to Scotland’s first grand slam for 59 years – only their second ever – the following season. This current Scotland side have long talked about being similarly on the verge of something special.
Each of the last five years has brought a milestone result in the Six Nations – a first win over France for 10 years in 2016; a first against Wales for a decade in 2017; beating England for the first time in 10 years in 2018; emerging from Twickenham undefeated for the first time in 20 years in 2019; a first win in Wales for 18 years – albeit at Llanelli's empty Parc y Scarlets rather than in Cardiff – to conclude last year's truncated tournament.
But a breakthrough into genuine contenders has remained elusive despite the progress which has yielded three wins in three of the last four years – and a record low number of tries (five) and points (59) conceded last season. To take the next step, Scotland must win at least one away game this year – in either London or Paris.
Eddie Jones has predictably upped the ante by suggesting if Scotland are still in contention in the final 15 minutes, the burden of history and expectation will weigh heavily on visiting shoulders. Back in late October, when the same test of nerve presented itself against Wales, Scotland passed with flying colours, monopolising possession and territory in challenging conditions to close out a precious win, albeit against a home side woefully short of confidence. Victory at Twickenham, even an empty Twickenham, would represent a quantum leap forward.
Since the horror show of 2017 and the wreckage of a record 61-21 defeat, the last three Calcutta Cup fixtures have given justifiable cause for optimism. After a stunning 25-13 victory in 2018 came the mind-boggling comeback of two years ago, when Scotland scored six tries and 38 unanswered points but couldn’t quite close the deal. Finn Russell was the inspiration behind both those displays and is back at No 10 after missing the narrow defeat in a Murrayfield monsoon this time last year following his fallout with Townsend.
The smiling sorcerer believes Scotland are “there or thereabouts”. The captain Stuart Hogg, the eternal optimist, has declared himself “really excited”. Prop Rory Sutherland has spoken of “dominating” England up front. Such bullishness has previously met a brutal dose of rugby reality.
And yet . . . Scotland certainly have the personnel and tools to trouble an England side shorn of five frontline forwards, and five starters who have not played a competitive game for two months.
If hooker George Turner can find his lineout darts in his first Six Nations start, Scotland's improved scrum should ensure set-piece parity elsewhere. If debutant centre Cameron Redpath settles quickly, he and Russell have the skills to release the attacking threats in the back three.
In theory, the lack of crowd should neutralise home advantage. But will the ghosts of Twickenham past – and 18 winless matches – still haunt the Scots in an empty stadium? “It is so different to when we go to Dublin or Cardiff or Paris,” says Telfer, now in his 81st year. “We have to really rise to the occasion when we go down there. I think we have as good a chance this time as we have had for a while. The best time to get the top teams sometimes is their first game.”
The stats don’t suggest England are slow starters. They have won 17 of their 21 first-round matches in the Six Nations era. Of the four they lost, only one – against Wales in 2008 – was at Twickenham. Scotland, by contrast, have won just three matches first up in the Six Nations, none of them away. But these are strange times. The last year has taught us that nothing is certain anymore. – Guardian