Scotland v England, Murrayfield, Saturday, 4.50pm
RTÉ 2, BBC 1 Eddie Jones has been talking a relentlessly good game all week but, on the eve of this year's Six Nations Championship, not many in Scotland are listening. If ever there was a fixture where actions speak louder than words it is rugby's oldest international contest, particularly when Murrayfield is rocking and England are in danger of finishing second.
It has not happened for a while – 2008 to be precise – and it is now a decade since Scotland even won on the tournament's opening weekend. On the back of an encouraging World Cup, however, the thistle is bristling again and Edinburgh's breezy streets are awash with – among other things – optimism. Proud Eddie's army are about to receive a serious hurry up, win or lose.
That was the confident prediction from the Scottish camp on the eve of battle. Ross Ford, the hooker set to win his 95th cap, is not the type to make wildly extravagant claims, so when he advised England to brace themselves for on-field "chaos" it felt like a genuine health and safety warning.
“Something we always look to do is create chaos, both in defence and attack,” murmured the big-shouldered Edinburgh forward. “We need to operate at a tempo and pace which allows us to bring that chaos. It’s something we tried to do at the World Cup and it worked well for us. Hopefully we’ve improved since then and can show that when we kick off.”
It is almost a throwback to the rampaging days of John Jeffrey, Finlay Calder and co, when Scottish rucking was a thing of rugged beauty, at least for those not lying on the floor at the time. The game has long since outlawed boots on bodies but in the Kiwi-born John Hardie and Hong-Kong-born John Barclay, Scotland still have a pair of classic, fast-moving opensides hoping to cause havoc at the breakdown.
Factor in a much-improved Scottish set piece, the giant Gray brothers in the secondrow, a sharp-witted pair of halfbacks and the dangerous Mark Bennett in midfield and there is the potential for the most high-profile Scottish comeback gig since the Bay City Rollers.
Should it stay dry the hosts will certainly look to play at pace. “We all know applying pressure on the other team is how you get an advantage,” confirmed Nathan Hines, the former Scotland and Lions lock now working within Vern Cotter’s management team. “England’s scrum isn’t exactly bad and we’ll have a big job to make sure we have parity and look after our own ball. You try and get your forwards in the game and try and win their ball. It’s not a difficult game really, is it?”
Helping to bring some order to all the aforementioned chaos is the "other" Richie Gray, the former South Africa coaching assistant who has been hired by his native country as a breakdown specialist. Ford is a big fan – "It is small detail that makes the big difference: body position and that kind of thing" – and there seems little doubt that England's backrow, not least James Haskell at seven, will have their hands full. "Both Hards and Barclay are brilliant on the ground at slowing things up and getting turnovers," continued Ford. "If they see the opportunity they will go for it."
What Scotland insist they will not be doing is actively winding up the new England captain, Dylan Hartley. Hines, no stranger to a touch of enforcing back in the day, reckons it would be "a waste of energy" and warns against "chasing English shadows".
Among the best rugby sledgers in his personal experience was South Africa’s Victor Matfield – “Victor was quite good when Bakkies Botha was next to him” – but, on this particular occasion, the Scots are determined to remain calm and not donate England any easy points. “You have to understand that when you’re on the pitch you can’t go all fire and brimstone,” stressed Ford. “You’ve got to think about things and make sure your judgment and skills aren’t clouded by trying to be the big man and all that guff.”
Jones’s first assignment will be a revealing one on several fronts. Four years ago Stuart Lancaster’s England required a charge-down try from Charlie Hodgson to edge a slightly fortunate win.
Last year at Twickenham the Scots were leading early in the second-half. Whoever kicks England’s goals – Jones has yet to confirm his preference but Owen Farrell will presumably be handed the tee initially – will need to be spot on, likewise the visitors’ discipline.
Either way a hard day’s night awaits, with no guarantee of success should Scotland play with the freedom they displayed against Australia in the World Cup quarter-finals.
The people of the Highlands have just been voted the happiest in the UK, there will be further trebles all round if England stumble down a rare Calcutta Cup black hole.
SCOTLAND: S Hogg (Glasgow); S Maitland (London Irish), M Bennett (Glasgow), M Scott (Edinburgh), T Seymour (Glasgow); F Russell (Glasgow), G Laidlaw (Gloucester, capt); A Dickinson (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), W Nel (Edinburgh), R Gray (Castres), J Gray (Glasgow), J Barclay (Scarlets), J Hardie (Edinburgh), D Denton (Bath). Replacements: S McInally (Edinburgh), G Reid (Glasgow), Z Fagerson (Glasgow), T Swinson (Glasgow), B Cowan (London Irish), S Hidalgo-Clyne (Edinburgh), D Weir (Glasgow), D Taylor (Saracens).
ENGLAND: M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), O Farrell (Saracens), J Nowell (Exeter); G Ford (Bath), D Care (Harlequins); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton, capt), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Kruis (Saracens), C Robshaw (Harlequins), J Haskell (Wasps), B Vunipola (Saracens). Replacements: J George (Saracens), M Vunipola (Saracens), P Hill (Northampton), C Lawes (Northampton), J Clifford (Harlequins), B Youngs (Leicester), A Goode (Saracens), O Devoto (Bath).
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland). Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France) and Stuart Berry (South Africa).