England v Scotland World Cup Preview

by Rhys Knott

Not many teams at the World Cup have the sort of historical rivalry that these 2 nations do, since 1879 they have competed for the Calcutta Cup.  Rarely though has a meeting between these countries had so much resting on its result. 

If Scotland can win by more than 7 points, and therefore deny England a losing bonus point they knock England out of the tournament, however if England win and Argentina score 4 tries in their expected victory over Georgia then Scotland will be leaving New Zealand earlier than they would have wished.  So far in the group neither team have really played at the level their coaches would have been expecting from them, while England have won all 3 of their Pool games so far they have not gained the 4 try bonus point in all their games as hosts New Zealand have and this means that the last game is still a must win game for them.

Scotland however have not won all their games and a heart breaking loss to Argentina on Sunday mean that the pressure is now on them to not just win their final game, but do so whilst preventing England from gaining any bonus points from the game.  England have at least shown signs of improvement and gaining momentum as the Pool stages have progressed, Scotland however have if anything regressed with their biggest victory coming in their opening game against Romania, 34 – 24, Romania would later go on to lose to England by a crushing 67 – 3 score line.

Scotland will be able to call on the services of tight head prop Euan Murray for this game after he missed Scotland’s last game for religious reasons but they could be forced into 2 changes in the pack as they have injury worries over Gloucester’s gargantuan lock forward Jim Hamilton, who has a knee problem and Saracens’ number 8 Kelly Brown who suffered a concussion against the Pumas, both players started the last 2 matches.

The good news for the Scots is that their young tyro, second row Richie Gray, who will be a key player in such an important contest has returned to training after he incurred a hamstring injury against Argentina.  England have no new injury concerns and after Andrew Sheridan’s tournament ending shoulder injury they have called up New Zealand born number 8 Thomas Waldrom to replenish their 30 man squad.  First choice number 8 Nick Easter is still battling a back complaint, but remains in the squad having had an epidural injection to relieve his pain.  England expect to welcome back Northampton’s second row forward Courtney Lawes after the denouement of his 2 match ban which he received following England’s Pool opener against Argentina.  Like Gray for Scotland Lawes mobility and aggression will be vital if England are to prevail in this fixture.

Both teams have their own selection dilemmas at 10, it had seemed that they had both settled on a system of starting games with younger fly halves who provide more of a running threat and then use a more experienced head to “close out” the game by slowing the pace of the game and kicking tactically as well as for points.  However in Jonny Wilkinson England have the highest points scorer in Rugby World Cup history so they had looked to him to guide them through the Pool stages but after an abysmal kicking display against Argentina this strategy seemed to be called into question and 26 year old Toby Flood started their second Pool match.  Similarly Scotland started the tournament with 23 year old Ruaridh Jackson seemingly in pole position but after a lacklustre first showing they reverted to 33 year old veteran Dan Parks for their second Pool fixture with Georgia.

Really the only positive that Scotland can take into this crucial match is the fact that they are facing England, not many Scotland supporters, or players for that matter can remember the last time that they were favourites to beat the Auld enemy but that hasn’t prevented them from recoding 2 wins and 1 draw in their last 6 meetings.  Scotland will also take heart from the fact that England had appeared to be improving with every game during this year’s 6 Nations championship but when the pressure was really cranked up in the Grand Slam game against Ireland on the final weekend many of the England team looked like the situation was far too intense for them and the lack of leadership on the field combined with the total erosion of England’s discipline as they conceded 9 penalties and scrum half Ben Youngs was sin binned was quite astonishing.

Selection could be the key to the result of this game and whichever coach picks a team to win, instead of a more conservative selection with one eye on keeping the game tight and not losing could find themselves heading into the Quarter Final stage on the back of a morale boosting victory.  Andy Robinson’s decision to include both Joe Ansbro and Simon Danielli after resting them for the Argentina game looks to be designed to provide the Scottish backs more creativity and penetration out wide and Sean Lamont’s move to inside centre should provide the Scots with the go forward they’ll need to put the English pack on the back foot.  Conversely England have made the more conservative selection of tough tackling Jonny Wilkinson at fly half and in a surprise move Martin Johnson has dropped hat trick scorer Mark Cueto in favour of Delon Armitage, in what appears to be a change based on each players defensive attributes.

This game really is England’s to win, or lose if they can keep their composure they should progress into the knock out stages and will probably face France in their Quarter Final.  One slight concern would be that if Martin Johnson’s defensive mind set shown in his selection is transmitted to his players before they even set foot on the pitch then they may just go into their shell’s and unless they match the Scottish passion and gung ho attitude they could struggle to cope with the ferocity of the Scots attack.  The only people who seem to believe that Scotland can knock England out of the World Cup appear to be England fans who have been having flash backs to Dublin in March all week.  The only thing that everybody does seem to agree on is that the result will be a close run thing with bookmakers offering 2-1 on England winning by less than 10 points or 3-1 on Scotland winning by less than 10 points.

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