Six Nations: England launches new era against Scotland
The oldest fixture in rugby union was, not so long ago, one of the most one-sided.
From 1991-2007, England and Scotland met 29 times. Scotland won just three of the games — and all of those victories came in grim Edinburgh weather at its home of Murrayfield.
How the tide has turned.
The boys in blue crossed the border and headed south this week, looking to claim a fourth win in their last six meetings with the auld enemy when they face off at Twickenham on Saturday.
It’s a match that launches not only the 2023 Six Nations but also a new era in English rugby. Steve Borthwick takes charge for the first time since replacing Eddie Jones as coach.
The Calcutta Cup is often viewed as a bigger deal for Scotland.
Maybe not this time.
“We haven’t played a game yet,” England back-rower Sam Simmonds said, “but, within the few training sessions that we’ve had, it feels like we’re going in the right direction. There’s a buzz around the squad of excitement and enjoyment.
“The first game against Scotland is huge.”
Boos rang around Twickenham the last time England played there. That was in late November, at the end of the team’s 27-13 pumping by South Africa that spelt the end for Jones and his seven-year tenure.
England’s players might get some more slack from the home fans on Saturday, as Borthwick is unlikely to get a slick performance straight out of the gate as he molds his own team (with eight changes) at the start of a Rugby World Cup year.
A below-par performance might be accepted, even expected. Another loss isn’t.
Scotland will be hit with the combined might of a full house and fired-up opponents eager to impress their new coach — factors that weren’t in play when the Scots won at an empty Twickenham in 2021 during the pandemic.
Two years earlier, there was the epic, breathless 38-38 draw between the old foes. Before that, a string of unbroken, mostly comfortable England wins since the 12-12 draw in 1989.
So Scotland cannot really relax. Not after a largely underwhelming 2022 where the high point was the first game of the year — an attritional home win over the English.
“We’re in a good place,” said Scotland captain Jamie Ritchie, pointing to the domestic form of Edinburgh and Glasgow and what he saw as an encouraging autumn series featuring victories over Fiji and Argentina.
Then there’s the return of the mercurial Finn Russell at flyhalf now that he has patched up his differences with Scotland coach Gregor Townsend.
Russell against Marcus Smith will be a must-watch head to-head.
Townsend is wary of England, especially as the host might be changing game plans under Borthwick and new attack coach Nick Evans. Whatever it is — and Borthwick criticized England’s lack of adaptability in the autumn — it doesn’t include Manu Tuilagi.
Tuilagi was the icebreaker Eddie Jones embraced when fit. But he and the outside backs struggled to be used while Jones bedded in Smith and Owen Farrell together. Smith and Farrell have survived but Tuilagi has been axed beside Jonny May and Jack Nowell.
London Irish winger Ollie Hassell-Collins will make his England debut, along with Harlequins hooker Jack Walker if he comes off the bench. Prop Dan Cole has been recalled for the first time since the 2019 World Cup final.
Townsend dropped Ali Price for in-form London Irish scrumhalf Ben White. Another Lion, center Chris Harris, has made way for Huw Jones, who has four tries against England. The game was a week too soon for recovering Lions forwards Zander Fagerson and Hamish Watson. Townsend was still bullish.
“Over the last five years we have been a good match for them,” Townsend said, “and I’m sure this will be competitive, too.”
England: Freddie Steward, Max Malins, Joe Marchant, Owen Farrell (captain), Ollie Hassell-Collins, Marcus Smith, Jack van Poortvliet; Alex Dombrandt, Ben Curry, Lewis Ludlam, Ollie Chessum, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Ellis Genge. Reserves: Jack Walker, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Nick Isiekwe, Ben Earl, Ben Youngs, Ollie Lawrence, Anthony Watson.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Kyle Steyn, Huw Jones, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell, Ben White; Matt Fagerson, Luke Crosbie, Jamie Ritchie (captain), Grant Gilchrist, Richie Gray, WP Nel, George Turner, Pierre Schoeman. Reserves: Fraser Brown, Jamie Bhatti, Simon Berghan, Jonny Gray, Jack Dempsey, George Horne, Blair Kinghorn, Chris Harris.
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