Ah, the sweet smell of 6 Nations is in the air. Two days from now and the competition will have kicked off in earnest and the plethora of questions which have been raised by squad and team selections will begin to be answered. Have the right players been picked in the right positions? Is youth getting enough of a chance? Is there enough experience in the team? Each side will go in optimistic of a good tournament and this makes the first weekend games crucial.
Whilst France have the privilege of hosting the first game of 6 Nations 2012 with a game in Paris against an ever improving Italy most eyes and thoughts in this part of the world will be turned towards Murrayfield and the small matter of the Calcutta Cup match. Scotland and England, forever linked and squabbling like ill-tempered siblings.
From accusations of gamesmanship (Sir Clive and his anger at the pipers piping and pillars in the away dressing room) to t-shirt hiccups and Robinson’s claims of Auckland arrogance, this is not a game for the faint-hearted. Yet both sides approach this year with a variety of fresh faces and it promises to be an intriguing encounter.
In my opinion England have, so far, played a blinder. They’ve positioned themselves as firm underdogs – an inexperienced squad with an interim coach and an organisation still suffering from the fall out of a poor World Cup. Couple this with the fact that they are visiting Murrayfield which has been labelled by some southern pundits as ‘hostile’. It’s been a bloody wonder of PR. Behind closed doors they’ll have posted up Andy Robinsons quotes about arrogance and the stories of t-shirt gaffes. Make no mistake, this England side will be fired up and fully confident that they’ll come up the road and make a mockery of the underdog status. They’ll have three debutants in the starting XV and that will bring an enthusiasm and unpredictability that has not always been evident in recent England sides. In short I actually think England have a lot more to offer that people give them credit for.
Scotland also head into the game with a couple of fresh faces. Lee Jones will hope to bring his searing hot Edinburgh form into the international arena and Dave Denton will get his first start in the blue jersey. However, across the rest of the XV it’s a fairly experienced bunch. Of course the most controversial amongst these is undoubtedly Dan Parks whose inclusion has sparked furious debate on his merits as an international player. My own initial response was an expletive ridden text to Rory and a condemnation of Robinson’s apparent conservative approach. I still think my first choice would have been to pair Blair and Laidlaw as they’ve been a cracking duo for Edinburgh but the more I think about it the more I see some logic in the selection of Parks.
Robinson will know full well that England will come up firing, new players and a home press that have given them nothing but grief for the last few months will mean that they will want to prove a point. I suspect Robinson will look to take some of the heat out the game, play for territory and try and build pressure on the English. They’ll possibly let England have the ball in their own territory and try and isolate any broken field runners, looking for a quick turnover and spread the ball out wide to utilise the pace of Jones and Evans.
Crucial to this will be the ability for Lamont and De Luca to link up in the centre. De Luca, who was roundly criticised at the World Cup, has been in fine attacking form for Edinburgh and if he’s ever going to make the mark internationally now is the time. His eye for a decisive line and well timed pass must be fully utilised if Scotland have any hopes of being an attacking threat. I fully expect Blair and Laidlaw to come on in the second half when England may have tired and use them to create space and opportunities against heavy legs. It’s not a plan without risk, primarily is depends on a strong defensive effort and discipline, particularly in the first 15-20 minutes when England will look to make a mark. I hope for Robinson’s sake that the selection of Parks doesn’t backfire. He is a fine coach but after a World Cup where he made some questionable team selections (dropping Ansbro for the Argentina game) the last thing he needs is to give more ammunition to those who question his ability to select the best XV.
It is a tradition of mine to give a prediction based on my half-baked thoughts on the game and this year is no different. So:
Head – Scotland eke out a close game, winning by a maximum of 5 points. Parks plays his part by ensuring Scotland play in English territory and eventually the older more experienced Scotland squad draw enough penalties to tough the game out. I expect England to score a try through Ashton… just because it will annoy me.
Heart – Scotland finally, after an eternity of waiting, clicks and converts pressure. A couple of early tries have England scrambling. The inexperience in the England ranks tells and Scotland are on hand to capitalise. A clear Scottish victory by 10+ points.
Arse – England slow walk out onto the Murrayfield pitch. Fired up they drive the Scots back and create chances out wide. Scotland cause not helped by a misfiring Dan Parks whose kicking goes to pot and early injuries to the front row mean the English forwards gain dominance. A horrible day capped off by Chris Ashton completing a swallow diving hat-trick in the final moments. In this eventuality it is likely my head will burst like a little grape of rage. England wins by 15+ points.