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Tom May Column – The Calcutta Cup: Battle Of The Backs

The Calcutta Cup is one of the oldest trophies in sport. Two sides that can’t stand the sight of each other and who are desperate to come out on top. This week will be exactly the same.

Murrayfield is going to be cold but looks set to be dry which should allow for a great game. England won on their last jaunt north and there will no doubt be memories of the drubbing that Scotland took at Twickenham in last year’s 6 Nations, losing 61-21.

I was excited about Scotland’s chances coming into this year’s tournament but that fizzled out on the opening Saturday after they were very nearly nilled in Cardiff. So much hope and hype led to nothing. They bounced back nicely against France though and looked sharp at times while England beat Italy and then came out on top in a monumental arm wrestle at Twickenham last time out.

Defence is an issue at the moment for both sides, England are missing far too many tackles and Scotland have players who can expose that. Scotland need Finn Russell to be far more accurate than he has been through Rounds 1 and 2 or his errors will get punished by an in-form England back three.

KEY BATTLES
Stuart Hogg v Mike Brown

Both full backs made significant metres in Round 2, Hogg carried for 123 with Brown close behind on 118. This high number shows that the opposition kicked poorly at times and this will be an area Scotland and England focus on this week in their preparations.

Hogg is probably more of a direct attacking and running threat with his pace and I like the way he bounces out on the defender opposite him, trying to turn the shoulders of the outside defender in towards him before releasing the ball to his support player. It’s simple but only those players with genuine footwork and or pace can do that. Hogg has both.

Brown had a dream game against Wales in dire conditions. He was rock solid under the high ball and hardly ever gets caught by the first defender getting his team moving forward. With the wings England have, I think Eddie Jones can afford to lack some of the attacking potency that he might have from selecting Watson at 15 but there is no doubt both of these players can be key for their countries on Saturday.

Slightly differing in their strengths but all important. Experienced players, good decisions makers and fierce competitors, neither one of these two will take a backward step.

Midfield

Scotland have stuck with Finn Russell, Pete Horne and Huw Jones who will likely line up opposite George Ford, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph in Edinburgh. On paper a tough battle but when you look a bit deeper there is only one winner and Scotland will have to up their game massively to compete in this area. They certainly have the ability but as a midfield, they have misfired through the opening rounds while the
Ford/Farrell axis provides England with stability consistently.

Stability is not a word that you would use when describing the performances of Russell over the past couple of weekends – frustratingly poor might be the words you opt for. Handling errors, howling missed touch kicks and a lack of game management will hand England this game on a plate. He needs to improve. Ford, his direct opponent, is slightly overshadowed by his teammate Farrell but his game understanding and intuitive relationship with his centre partner allows England to look settled in most situations. He finds space with his kicking and makes good decisions on the ball when looking to play.

Horne and Farrell are poles apart. That said, that isn’t to knock what the Scottish centre has done to date. I think he’s played well for Scotland, he’s confident in attack and exposes weaker defenders on the gain line which invariably leads to a positive outcome for the team.

Farrell, however, is in a class of his own at the moment. He can do everything required and more often than not, pulls something out of the bag under huge pressure. His vision and reading of the game seem to be phases ahead of everyone else, allowing him to feel where the space will be rather than make last-gasp judgements which can be clouded by pressure.

Horne can create space for himself slightly better than his opposite man, as he has more pace, but Farrell uses his reading of the defence to select razor-sharp lines of running which allow him to almost ghost through. The Scottish midfield needs to pressure these two along with Hamish Watson to force the ball back inside. That’s their best hope but with that line speed come other issues.

One area I think Scotland have the nudge on England is at outside centre. Huw Jones is absolute class. A ‘traditional’ outside centre who is big enough to pose a physical threat in the wider channels while also running some intelligent and graceful lines making clean line breaks look simple and defenders look ponderous. He understands the space on the width which is what allows him to get on the score sheet so often and England will spend some time analysing his game this week. Shut him down and you take away a key component of Scotland’s attacking game.

Joseph will have license to get up in the passing lanes and in front of the defensive line so Russell’s decision to play wide won’t be as easy, much the same as he did against Wales in pressuring Rhys Patchell. He has had some outstanding games against Scotland and Eddie Jones will hope he can recapture that form this weekend. Scotland have England’s number at thirteen but I think the midfield battle will be won by the visitors overall.

Greig Laidlaw v Danny Care

These two are very different players but make their teams tick all the same. Greig Laidlaw has passed the 60 cap mark with Danny Care being crowned as England’s most capped scrum-half just last time out.

He might not be the most threatening of nines in the 6 Nations but Laidlaw allows Scotland to function and move around the field with a level of maturity which is a nice foil for them with Russell outside him. His tactical kicking game can get his side on the front foot and his leadership with his side is there to see. When he’s on the ball, players around him know what’s happening and stop to listen in breaks in the play.

Having Ali Price and Russell next to each other is a recipe for disaster until Russell’s game management
improves and Laidlaw gives good balance. He gets to every breakdown and while his service might not be as quick as Care’s he makes good decisions which buys Scotland time. It was interesting to see Gregor Townsend shift him to fly half when he replaced Russell against France and arguably Scotland played better with him there. That said the French looked physically broken by then.

Danny Care we know likes to run but his footballing background gives England a varied kicking
game. Regular kicks are fine and work well but he also has the ability to recognise when the back three have disappeared at the base of a ruck or have been caught out of position and he can use his skill to kick directly into that space. His battle against Gareth Davies didn’t materialise in the monsoon at Twickenham but if Scotland don’t martial those defensive positions around the ruck at A, B and C then Care will be quick to expose them and it’s so hard to recover from a line break so close to the ruck.

A battle of two nines who play such different games could have an interesting outcome on the result. Conditions dependent, you would think that Care might win out but don’t forget the influence Laidlaw has directly on the scoreboard through his kicking from the tee. England can’t afford to give away cheap penalties or they risk Scotland punishing them from everywhere.

Author: Tom May

Tom May enjoyed a 19-year rugby career at the very top. He represented England, Newcastle Falcons, Toulon, Northampton Saints and London Welsh . Since retiring, Tom has worked for ESPN, BT Sport and Pundit Arena.

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