By Tadhg Peavoy
Scotland will arrive in London this Saturday looking for a first victory at Twickenham since 1983; all signs suggest they won’t get it.
This England side is brimming with confidence following their mesmeric and highly surprising 38-21 victory over New Zealand last December.
Buoyed by that win, one would expect England to come into the tie ready to unleash hell upon their northern rivals, in the oldest clash in the history of international rugby.
While Scotland have recorded five wins over England since 1983, all of them have come in front of a partisan crowd at Murrayfield, where Scotland have managed to strangle the life out of their oldest foes.
At Twickenham, the Scots must contend with being minnows in the playground of one of rugby’s top dogs, and both their fans and teams tend to struggle with such a challenge.
A glance at Saturday’s team sheets reveals obvious advantages that the Red Rose would appear to hold over the Thistle.
England’s front five looks a formidable unit, with Joe Marler, Dan Cole, and the engine room of Joe Launchbury and Geoff Parling, providing a solid platform for England to work off.
Captain Chris Robshaw provides the pivotal link play from openside flanker to a backline that remains unproven, but is showing signs of considerable life.
Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell link up at halfback, with both players on their day excellent in their own ways.
Youngs excels with ball-in-hand and is never short of confidence to take on the opposition defence.
While Farrell is a number 10 who loves to keep his pack on the front foot with well-placed tactical kicking, and a metronomic boot from penalties.
Outside them again, the wealth of talent is obvious, with Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt and Mike Brown all likely tryscorers.
While Scotland cannot command the same calibre of player at present, they do boast some solid talent.
Their front five is built around number four Richie Gray, arguably the best second row in this year’s championship. His lineout, breakdown and loose play are five-star, and Scotland will hope he can inspire his pack to rise to the occasion at Twickers.
In the front row ahead of him tighthead prop Euan Murray is a hugely experienced international who will provide ballast at scrum time.
The back row is where Scotland are strongest, with Alasdair Strokosch, Kelly Brown and John Beattie forming a fine triumvirate.
It is beyond the pack that Scotland have struggled recently, and in truth since the Five Nations became the Six Nations in 2000.
While Greig Laidlaw and Ruaridh Jackson are far from weak half-backs, they often lack the cutting edge and creativity to raise Scotland’s game above the mediocre.
The same is usually said of Scotland’s centre pairings; however, in this outing, interim head coach Scott Johnson has opted to pair Matt Scott and Sean Lamont, which could provide a much needed air of vitality and freshness.
In the back three, Scotland have talent, with Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser very dangerous. The question is can the pack supply them with enough quality possession and open space to do some damage.
As always in England v Scotland encounters, the game is likely to he a highly attritional affair, with the Scots looking to impose themselves on the English at the breakdown and at set-pieces, forcing plenty of turnovers and errors, leading to the Red Rose upping the penalty count early on, which will give the Scots a chance to kick themselves into the lead.
The Scottish team will most likely have some pre-planned moves in the can to attempt to crack the England rearguard open and wrestle a few five-pointers over the line.
If new coach Johnson can keep Scotland’s defensive structures firm, while adding a sprinkle of creativity to the attack, this is possible.
England have the bigger and more technically skilled pack and backline, and they will be hoping to overpower the Scots early on and keep them pinned back in their 22.
They will full well expect an early onslaught and feel that if they can withstand this, they can gradually subdue Scotland, as they have done so well in recent meetings.
All signs point to an England victory. But Scotland love nothing more than upsetting the apple cart.
England to win by 15 points.
England v Scotland, RBS 6 Nations, Twickenham, Saturday 2 February, kick-off 16:00:
England: 15 Alex Goode 14 Chris Ashton 13 Brad Barritt 12 Billy Twelvetrees 11 Mike Brown 10 Owen Farrell 9 Ben Youngs 1 Joe Marler 2 Tom Youngs 3 Dan Cole 4 Joe Launchbury 5 Geoff Parling 6 Tom Wood 7 Chris Robshaw (captain) 8 Ben Morgan.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley 17 Dave Wilson 18 Mako Vunipola 19 Courtney Lawes 20 James Haskell 21 Danny Care 22 Toby Flood 23 Dave Strettle.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg 14 Sean Maitland 13 Sean Lamont 12 Matt Scott 11 Tim Visser 10 Ruaridh Jackson 9 Greig Laidlaw 1 Ryan Grant 2 Dougie Hall 3 Euan Murray 4 Richie Gray 5 Jim Hamilton 6 Alasdair Strokosch 7 Kelly Brown (captain) 8 Johnnie Beattie.
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford 17 Moray Low 18 Geoff Cross 19 Alastair Kellock 20 David Denton 21 Henry Pyrgos 22 Duncan Weir 23 Max Evans.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Irl).
Touch judges: Jerome Garces (Fra) Francisco Pastrana (Arg).
TV: Nigel Whitehouse (Wal).