Preview round three of the Six Nations, where England will travel to Scotland to face Gregor Townsend's men at Murrayfield.
Rejoice! After a long Six Nations-less week, the world's best annual tournament returns once again to our screens. Round three of 2018 gets under way with France hosting Italy on Friday evening whilst Wales and England travel to Ireland and Scotland respectively on Saturday.
England and Ireland sit at nine points apiece at the top of the table, Wales have six points, Scotland have four, France have two and Italy are yet to register a point thus far.
We take a look ahead at the Calcutta Cup clash this weekend, in which Scotland will play host to England at Murrayfield. Eddie Jones' England look to make it three out of three in their ambitions to claim a second grandslam and record breaking third consecutive trophy.
Scotland's pre-tournament hopes were high, having swatted aside a 14-man Australian side and running the All Blacks to the dying seconds during the November Internationals. An opening round 34-7-humbling in Cardiff at the hands of the Welsh and a close shave against France, in which scrum-half Gregor Laidlaw was shifted to fly-half, has left significant question marks over Gregor Townsend's men and their aspirations of a top half finish.
England have the upper hand, having comfortably put away Scotland at Twickenham last year 61-21. Despite a strong showing, beating both Wales and Ireland in the previous rounds, the Scottish game proved too fragile to hold up against a dominant home side at Twickenham. Townsend's men arrive in lower spirits and poorer form to the previous year, although the Scots will enjoy home advantage and a desire to prove themselves after their disappointment in the opening two rounds.
Dylan Hartley's aspirations will include a repeat performance of last year's comfortable victory, however, the 31-year-old 91-times-capped test veteran will know better than to expect this weekend's opponents to roll over in Edinburgh as they did at Twickenham.
England lose Exeter Chiefs' dynamo number eight Sam Simmonds, but he is handily replaced by Wasps' Nathan Hughes. The reigning champions will benefit from the sheer bulk and size of Hughes, but his lack of match fitness following his knee injury will be a test against a fast-paced Scottish backline spearheaded by Finn Russell.
Experienced campaigner Joe Marler returns to the match-day 23 following his suspension, taking the spot of Exeter loosehead Alex Hepburn on the bench. There is no room for the returning flanker James Haskell, who also returned to contention this week following suspension, with Sam Underhill retaining his spot in the 20 jersey following the match-saving tackle against Wales.
Teams for the Murrayfield clash
England will benefit hugely from the return of a hulking ball carrier at number eight, with Nathan Hughes immediately returning to the starting XV. The fact that Jones has named an otherwise unchanged side is telling, with the Australian obviously confident in his side's performances despite a lack of scores against Wales after the first 20 minutes.
Finn Russell will be looking for a steadier performance after his performance against the French when scrum-half Grieg Laidlaw was forced to move out one position to see out the victory. Laidlaw himself will add some control and stability to Scotland but will have to ensure his style of play does not hamper the lethal Scottish attack, which soundly beat Australia and ran New Zealand to the dying minute in the Autumn.
Battle of the minds
In uncharacteristic fashion, Eddie Jones has been nothing but complimentary towards Scotland, with only England forwards coach Neal Hatley questioning the legality in which the Scottish tighthead Simon Berghan scrummages, commenting that the New Zealand born front rower repetitively drops his knee in the scrum.
Scotland boss Gregor Townsend has dropped the only headline-grabbing comment ahead of the clash at Murrayfield, accusing the English of regularly breaching the offside line and stating "it will be interesting to see if they stay onside".
England's game plan
Eddie Jones and his England comrades are fortunate enough to play two very similar teams back-to-back in the tournament, with both Wales and Scotland focusing significantly on their wide attacking game. Both Scarlets and Glasgow Warriors make up the bulk of the two sides, bringing their attacking instincts from club level directly to the international scene.
It was well publicised that during their lead up to the Wales game, England and Eddie Jones believed they could get to key man Rhys Patchell, exposing his lack of experience at test level. Jones' men can shift their focus onto the next target - Finn Russell - who showed two patchy performances so far. Russell looks threatening in attack but off the pace when it comes to kicking the corners and managing a game. However, arguably the most important cog in the Scottish system is scrum-half Greig Laidlaw. The side's former captain is no new boy and doesn't have much to prove. His bearing on Scotland's performances when he came from the bench in Cardiff and switched to fly-half against France were significantly influential. The 32-year-old brings the cool head and game management that keeps his side from capitulating as they did during the first 40 minutes against Wales. We can expect Chris Robshaw to give Laidlaw plenty of extra attention on Saturday.
England must replicate early scores
England must look to replicate the first-half Jonny May tries from round two, taking an early lead and keeping the crowd noise to a minimum. Teddy Thomas' two tries during the first 40 minutes at Murrayfield had a significant effect on the Scottish crowd, dimming the roar of support coming the way of Scotland captain John Barclay and his charges. A lack of noise piles pressure on a home side far more efficiently than the drowning racket of fans during away games. The struggles of FInn Russell and Scotland will be brought to the fore once again if they are pressurised into needing a bit of backline magic to chase the scoreboard.
As highlighted by both of Thomas' tries at Murrayfield, Halfpenny's and Evans' scores in Cardiff, Scotland's defence in the wider channels has been a weakness and one that plays into English hands. While England are not famed for their wide attacking prowess, a significant volume of their tries under Jones' regime come from the likes of Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Jonny May on the wing.
Kicking game will bear less fruit
Danny Care and George Ford were the unsung heroes of England's victory over Wales, thoroughly besting their Welsh counterparts when kicking for territory and competition in the air. Care and Ford will not be afforded the same luxury this weekend. Wales' back three was made up of a brand new combination of test newbies, allowing Watson, May and Mike Brown ample time to field both their oppositions and teammates high balls.. Scotland's all British and Irish Lions' back three draw a stark contrast, with Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland sharing 129 caps between them at an average of 43 caps apiece. Along with Laidlaw's box-kicking nous, England will not be permitted the same return rate or security under the high ball.
Russell can be the most dangerous fly-half in the Northern Hemisphere when he's in the mood and his short kicking game is prevalent when this is the case. Whether it's kicking crossfield for his wings or putting in his own chip and chases, the positioning of Brown as England's last line of defence and Care and Ford as sweepers will be vital. Fortunately, Watson's experience at fullback has seen him collect some audacious opposition cross field kicks over the last year, with one of his most impressive coming from the Lions series against the All Blacks last Summer.
Huw Jones' X-Factor
Huw Jones has been a revelation at outside centre for the Scots and brings something very different to the threat Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes offered in round two. The former Stormers centre is truly built in the Super Rugby mould, with a dangerous running and offloading skillset that has gotten the best of some of the world's top sides. The fact that the 24-year-old has scored eight tries in 14 tests is truly impressive.
Jonathan Joseph has so regularly been selected as England's outside centre because of his world class defensive game, utilised significantly to shut down the threat of Patchell and his Scarlets backline at Twickenham. While he will not be able to rush up in defence against the likes of Russell and Jones without risking a line break, his speed and agility could prove vital to England's cover defence.
The threat of Hamish Watson
Openside flanker, Hamish Watson, has been one of Scotland's key carriers despite his size, and their most fruitful source of turnovers. Watson draws a close comparison to Wales' openside Josh Navidi who is also a prominent carrier and turnover merchant, when he has the chance that is.
Ahead of the Wales clash, Jones went out to unsettle Patchell and captain Alun Wyn Jones by cricitising them in the media, clearly noting them as particularly influential figures in the script of the day. As proceedings transpired, Navidi was clearly another whom Jones was keen to shut down, wary of his threat at the breakdown. Fast turnover ball and a Scarlets-fueled counter attack could have easily changed the outcome of a game balanced on a knife's edge. As I pointed out in our post-game review, Navidi was targeted by England's pack as a tackler. The likes of Chris Robshaw, Joe Launchbury and Mako Vunipola all made clear attempts to keep the Cardiff man off his feet and out of competition at the breakdown by making him the main tackler. An effective tactic that kept the dreadlocked flanker relatively quiet until the later stages of the game when fitness was fading.
Watson will likely receive the same treatment, with returning number eight Nathan Hughes and his fellow forwards all looking likely to target the Edinburgh man. This tactic must be met with the same intensity and urgency when clearing out the ruck. There was significant improvement in the speed in which England secured their rucks a fortnight ago, further starving the Welsh of turnovers and dangerous counter attacking opportunities.
Smart money would be on an English victory on the road, with Scotland looking slightly out of sorts and the English proving they can grind out the victories but will not yet be satisfied with their performances.
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