Scotland v England, Murrayfield, 4.45pm, Virgin Media 1, BBC 1
This year just happens to be the 1,900th anniversary of the building of Hadrian’s Wall and it feels almost as long since English rugby fans headed north with so much apprehension.
While the Calcutta Cup "only" dates back to 1879, Scotland have rarely been as fancied to retain the venerable trophy or inflict successive Six Nations defeats on their neighbours for the first time in 38 years.
The weather is slightly ominous, too. While Met Office forecasts have improved since AD122, when the emperor Hadrian sought to protect the Roman empire by constructing a 73-mile barrier between the Tyne and the Solway Firth, some things never change. Let’s just say few would choose to be erecting much, or catching rugby balls, in the heavy rain and gusty winds reportedly heading Murrayfield’s way.
Foul conditions are not exactly alien to this fixture and England did just about manage to see off Storm Ciara and Scotland at Murrayfield two years ago.
This time it could be that the worst of the tempest will have passed through by kick-off but a settled, ambitious Scotland side, having triumphed at Twickenham 12 months ago, have it in them to unleash a devastating storm of their own making.
If the burden of favouritism has never sat comfortably on dark blue shoulders, there are good reasons why Gregor Townsend's side should not be taken lightly. They have a generous sprinkling of Lions, increasing depth and, in Finn Russell, a potential matchwinner in any company.
England, by contrast, lack some totemic figures, with more than half their reshuffled starting XV about to played their first Tests in Scotland. Two years ago young Freddie Steward featured in the U20s fixture at a chilly Myreside but a packed, hostile Murrayfield will be a wholly different proposition
The ghosts of wet, windy Calcutta Cups past will also be roaming the Edinburgh gloaming. No Scot will easily forget Duncan Hodge's slithering try in 2000 – as well as the famous "Battlers 19 Bottlers 13" headline the next day – nor the two similarly damp ambushes in 2006 and 2008 at the expense of English teams guided by Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton respectively.
Nowadays, though, Scotland have the ability to impose themselves regardless of the elements. England were a touch fortunate to sneak home two years ago and were well beaten in 2018 when, with Russell whirling his baton, the hosts won 25-13.
What a stark – and welcome – contrast it was to the 2014 post-match mood when the fixture had become so one-sided – and the Murrayfield pitch so parasite-infected – that the case for promotion to the Six Nations felt stronger than ever.
The Anglo-Scottish wheel has now turned full circle. England have failed to win three of the last four Calcutta Cup fixtures and will need to dig deep if the Duchess of Cambridge, the Rugby Football Union’s newly-minted patron, is to get one over the Princess Royal, her opposite number at the Scottish Rugby Union.
The tactical jousting between the coaches will also be fascinating, with Townsend certain to urge his forwards to complicate the life of Ben Youngs, winning his 113th England cap, and his red rose halfback partner Marcus Smith.
England were way too slow and ill-disciplined at Twickenham 12 months ago but, perversely, it may have done them a favour in retrospect. Jones, having opted to ditch the stifling, risk-averse rugby he had previously advocated, has now chosen the most mobile side at his disposal, supported by some heavy-duty “finishers” on the bench, and has given the visitors a puncher’s chance as a result.
As it happens, the head coach is friendly with the Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou and would settle for a similar outcome to Wednesday night’s Old Firm derby.
The only snag is that Scotland have also picked a canny-looking XV and know precisely what they are looking to do. Stay disciplined, build momentum, make England fretful, take their chances and, most crucially of all, keep playing for the full 80 minutes. Last time out against South Africa in the autumn, the Scottish thistle wilted disappointingly after the visitors had been 10-8 down at the interval.
England, by contrast, held on to defeat the Springboks 27-26 at Twickenham the following Saturday and will cling to the belief that, coming down the stretch, they can conjure up something similarly satisfying.
If anyone is going to be in the mood for some conjuring, though, it is Russell and it was no surprise to hear Anthony Seibold, England’s gravel-voiced Australian defence coach, acknowledging his new side cannot give the home outhalf the luxury of time or space.
In that regard the most pivotal English players could be Sam Simmonds and Elliot Daly, both of whom have had to bide their time prior to their starting recalls this week.
Simmonds will be expected to carry plenty of ball and pierce the Scottish advantage line and also make his presence felt at the breakdown. Daly, finally back in his preferred 13 jersey, will also need to be at his defensive best against Chris Harris, Stuart Hogg and Duhan van Der Merwe, all fellow Lions tourists last summer.
Without Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes and assorted others it promises to be a test of English resilience all round. The ‘r’ word has been frequently heard in their camp this week but, ultimately, there is no particular need for England’s new captain Tom Curry, his country’s youngest skipper since 1988, to deliver a lengthy speech for his troops. The potential implications of this contest should already be obvious enough, with the tournament prospects of both squads inextricably linked to the outcome.
Send the English home empty-handed and Townsend’s army, with France also due to travel to Murrayfield, can cautiously begin to dream about a potentially epic campaign. Should England, alternatively, somehow overcome all the hassles of recent weeks they will head to Rome next week suddenly free of self-doubt and believing that anything is possible.
It should be a belting game either way.
Is it ever so slightly telling that England have declined to allow cameras into their dressing room while Scotland have had no such qualms? It threatens to be a day of drenched coats, sodden kilts and dripping sporrans but clear eyes and full hearts will also be required on the field.
There have been reports this week of unusually high numbers of trees and plants blooming early because of global warming. The Flower of Scotland could soon be among them. – Guardian
SCOTLAND: S Hogg (Exeter, capt); D Graham (Edinburgh), C Harris (Gloucester), S Johnson (Glasgow), D van der Merwe (Worcester); F Russell (Racing 92), A Price (Glasgow); R Sutherland (Worcester), G Turner (Glasgow), Z Fagerson (Glasgow), J Gray (Exeter), G Gilchrist (Edinburgh), J Ritchie (Edinburgh), H Watson (Edinburgh), M Fagerson (Glasgow).
Replacements: S McInally (Edinburgh), P Schoeman (Edinburgh), WP Nel (Edinburgh), S Skinner (Exeter), M Bradbury (Edinburgh), B White (London Irish), B Kinghorn (Edinburgh), S Tuipulotu (Glasgow).
ENGLAND: F Steward (Leicester); M Malins (Saracens), E Daly (Saracens), H Slade (Exeter), J Marchant (Harlequins); M Smith (Harlequins), B Youngs (Leicester); E Genge (Leicester), L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), K Sinckler (Bristol); M Itoje (Saracens), N Isiekwe (Saracens); L Ludlam (Northampton), S Simmonds (Exeter), T Curry (Sale, capt).
Replacements: J George (Saracens), J Marler (Harlequins), W Stuart (Bath), C Ewels (Bath), A Dombrandt (Harlequins); H Randall (Bristol), G Ford (Leicester), J Nowell (Exeter).