Defending champions England start the defence of their Six Nations crown away to Scotland in the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield, Saturday, KO 5pm.
It’s been nothing short of a disastrous six months for English rugby. A poor World Cup, on and off the pitch, was followed by a number of senior players retiring, an inquiry into the players abject behavior during the WC, the sacking of respected coach Martin Johnston and, the appointment of an inexperienced, interim coach, Stuart Lancaster, who is then told he will be replaced after the Six Nations but can apply for the job anyways.
But it doesn’t stop there. You can look at it anyway you want but ‘rebuilding’ a team doesn’t start with appointing a captain, days before the world’s best international rugby competition, who has one cap to his name.
Chris Robshaw didn’t even make the 30-man World Cup squad and he is set to become England’s least experienced captain since uncapped Nigel Melville got the nod in 1984.
Nevertheless, the flanker and captain of Harlequins – who currently ride high at the top of the English Premiership, but also lost to Connacht two weeks previous in the Heineken Cup – is highly rated.
His appointment will cease after the second game against Italy, unless stated otherwise, as other names mentioned for future captaincy are Ben Foden and former Lion Tom Croft.
Lancaster believes his team can win the Six Nations with the group of players at his disposal, but has named three uncapped players in the starting XV, highly unusual for an English team in a test match. Saracens centre pairing Brad Baritt and Owen Farrell along with Northampton Saints’ NO.8 Phil Dowson get their first call-ups to international level.
On the bench there are even more fresh faces in Rob Webber, Geoff Parling, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson and Jordan Turner-Hall who are all set to win their first caps.
Scotland’s coach Andy Robinson has named two uncapped players for the match and fly-out legend Dan Parks has welcomed the inclusions as positive move forward for Scottish rugby which has seen better days. Winger Lee Jones and Edinburgh teammate, No.8 David Denton make their debuts and Parks is championing both players to make an impact against the ‘Auld Enemy’ on Saturday.
One major absentee in the Scotland set-up is Chris Patterson who was forced to retire last December due to injury. The winger come full-back has been Scotland’s top scorer at every Six Nations and his kicking accuracy was legendary. One noteworthy fact is he didn’t miss a single kick during the 2008 Six Nations or the 2007 RWC. Only South African Mortné Stein has more consecutive kicks in world rugby.
With 109 caps and over 800 points to his name, Patterson was something of an institution for Scottish rugby and has broken more records for his country than most including most caps, points scored and points in a game. Worryingly, with no Ruairi Jackson available, an injury to Parks would be detrimental to Scotland’s chances of avoiding the wooden spoon.
I really fancy Scotland to take the scalp of England despite their shortcomings behind the pack. England are in unknown territory with many a new face to blood and are an unstable position mentally – not to mention they are looking for their first win on Scottish soil in eight years. However, if Saturday’s match is anything like last year’s World Cup group game, expect a dour and dull 80 minutes of international rugby to be decided by a kick at goal.
Tip: At 18/1 a rare draw is worth a punt.
Scotland: Rory Lamont, Lee Jones, Nick De Luca, Sean Lamont, Max Evans, Dan Parks, Chris Cusiter; David Denton, Ross Rennie, Alasdair Strokosch, Jim Hamilton, Richie Gray, Euan Murray, Ross Ford (captain), Allan Jacobsen. Reserves: Scott Lawson, Geoff Cross, Alastair Kellock, John Barclay, Mike Blair, Greig Laidlaw, Graeme Morrison.
England: Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell, David Strettle, Charlie Hodgson, Ben Youngs; Phil Dowson, Chris Robshaw (captain), Tom Croft, Tom Palmer, Mauritz Botha, Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley, Alex Corbisiero. Reserves: Rob Webber, Matt Stevens, Geoff Parling, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson, Jordan Turner-Hall, Mike Brown.