Analysing The Opposition: Between A Rose And A Hard Place

On Sunday at 3pm there will be a meeting between two teams desperate to win. The only problem is that one team is eying a grand slam and the other team doesn’t want to get splinters in its hands…

The England team to play us has few changes in it:

15: Ben Foden
14: Chris Ashton
13: Mike Tindall
12: Shontayn Hape
11: Mark Cueto
10: Toby Flood
9: Ben Youngs

1: Alex Corbisiero
2: Dylan Hartley
3: Dan Cole
4: Louis Deacon
5: Tom Palmer
6: James Haskell
7: Tom Wood
8: Nick Easter

Corbisiero is back to cover for the niggle-plagued Sheridan and Croft is back on the bench, but apart from that there is a worrying familiarity to Johnson’s squad.

The reason I have highlighted Foden, Ashton, Youngs and Haskell is because I feel that they are either an extreme danger or that they are due a big performance. Indeed it is possible that with more teams cottoning-on to Ashton running an inside line from a wide but acute angle and with back-rows now having to commit a few more players to the 9/10 channel against England then expect Foden and particularly Haskell, who is due a performance with ball in hand, to gamble more on the outside of 10 and the inside of 12.

Scotland will have had some intensive sessions where they work on putting Barclay in the areas where we expect Ashton to be. Of course if it is possible to shackle Ashton (reports from the English media about Ashton healing Courtney Lawes and turning water into isotonic sports drinks are still unconfirmed, by the way) then we may be leaving areas open for Haskell and Foden to run into, much like O’Brien did when Scotland focussed on Heaslip and O’Driscoll.

The other issue is that with our pack trying to physically match England in a grinding plod the selection of Hines at 6 may help us at scrum time and give us an extra driving option in the lineout where he will manfully defend drives as well but it gives English flyers and athletes a new target to run around. If Youngs stays on for more than an hour then he could be running with increasing regularity as Kellock and Hines tire.

Defensively Scotland appear to have opted for assured defence from Ansbro and have looked to inject more fight and weight into the pack. One would hope that this would mean that Scotland have taken a step back in training to say “we pull in tighter in phase-play, narrowing the team and ensuring tackles near the breakdown”. Scotland’s defence right now can either have closed doors infield or more secure defence near the touchlines. We can’t have both. Especially when Robinson is aiming to rebuild a nation’s confidence.

Therefore if England get to the edges, fair play to them. On Sunday, though, I would be upset to see us get burned through the centre of the pitch and gifting England clean breaks.

Can we outmuscle England? Pundits would heavily suggest “no”…

It does, after all, seem that as we approach the WC England have ironed out some of their problems.  They are not invincible, though.

Too much is made of Hartley’s abrasive style and Ashton’s ability to pop up anywhere. However, if we target these two players, and others, then it is possible to give England a problem they have not foreseen. The key to this, is turnovers.

If we can force Hartley, Deacon and Wood to give away penalties from being cynical (or in Wood’s case trying too hard) or steal the ball from Ashton or the player he offloads to, which will take a defensive effort worthy of the Calcutta Cup, then there is the option to kick into a space that Foden can’t get to. This can either be done from quick penalties or from a turnover.

The issue with this is that we need flyers that are switched on, and we also need Jackson to perform in a way we have never seen him do before. Oh… and we have to strip Ashton and Flood. Easy peasy.

So after all this it is imperative that when we rock up to ‘Twickers’ we need a fresh defensive approach, awareness and some tries. Luck would also help, but defence! We definitely need defence! Brian Moore, do your worst…

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Dundonian Alan has played rugby all over the world for various teams including Dundee High School, Heriot's and the Scottish Club International. Now writing from London he covers all issues international and unreported.