Despite the positivity surrounding Scottish rugby at the moment it’s hard to see Scotland winning in Twickenham on Saturday.
Vern Cotter has his side playing some wonderful attacking rugby, but you only have to look at how France bullied their tight five to see where England will be looking to win the game.
Scotland will of course cause England problems through the likes of Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones, but I don’t see how they will be able to compete with England’s pack. Although Finn Russell will try and bring tempo and put his dangerous back three into space, Scotland’s tight five have struggled against bigger opponents, particularly at scrum time.
While both Richie and Jonny Gray have been excellent in the Championship and their athleticism gives Scotland greater mobility around the park, Scotland’s front row was decimated in Paris and Ireland gained a series of penalties from the set-piece on the opening weekend. Although Gordon Reid has given Scotland some stability, he will come under serious pressure from Dan Cole.
Let’s not forget about Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury either. Both have excelled in the second row this season, with the latter winning consecutive Man of the Match awards. Under the tutelage of Steve Borthwick, Courtney has also become a very different player.
The 28-year-old lock has taken on the responsibility of calling the lineouts and has begun to focus on the finer points of the game. Throughout the early part of his career, Lawes was best known for his “Hollywood Hits”, but there is much more substance to his game now. Courtney doesn’t run straight at defenders anymore with the intention of winning the contact – his lines of running are better then ever, as is his offloading game.
Even if Scotland are ahead as the game reaches the final quarter, Eddie Jones can unleash a powerful bench that can cause all sorts of problems for Scotland. Billy Vunipola will be relishing getting back on the field, while Mako Vunipola, Kyle Sinckler, Danny Care, Ben Te’o, Antony Watson and Jamie George are all capable of changing the game in England’s favour.
In fact, I would go as far to say that George is now a better hooker than Dylan Hartley and has a better chance of touring with the Lions this summer. Eddie Jones clearly believes Dylan’s leadership outweighs the merits of starting George, but over the course of the championship, the Saracens hooker has been the better performer.
For me, Rory Best is nailed on to be included in Warren Gatland’s squad, but after that it’s a bit of a lottery. Ken Owens has come into a bit of form for Wales and Fraser Brown has been very impressive for Scotland. As a result, Hartley must really find something to keep himself in the frame.
Saying that, if the Northampton Saints hooker has two big games and leads England to back-to-back grand slams then Gatland will struggle to leave Dylan out.
Another player who could force his way into Lions contention is Finn Russell. I wouldn’t see him as a Lions test 10, but he offers something different and would be ideal to start in the mid-week games. Despite some arguments suggesting he’s weak when on the back foot, the Glasgow Warriors playmaker made the most out of the possession he received against Ireland and France.
He likes to take the ball flat on the gain line and throws superb long passes out wide. This could put pressure on Jonathan Joseph and Elliot Daly in defence and force them to rush up and make spot tackles.
Both Elliot and Jack Nowell have shown the ability to make great reads in defence, but Stuart Hogg is a tricky customer who has the skill to move the ball quickly if he finds himself being closed down.
Nevertheless, I just think England will have too much power, and I reckon they should win 28-18.
Andy Goode, Pundit Arena
On this week’s edition of The Oval Office Podcast, Lee Byrne tells us what’s gone wrong with Wales and how many dragons are likely to feature for the Lions.