It was the beginning of Stuart Lancaster’s best Humpty Dumpty impersonation as bit by bit he rebuilt the squad following ‘Ballgate’ and boat jumps. Lancaster, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell have done a fine job and this year it’s Scotland who have an interim boss in charge.
Let’s face it, the Scotland of 2012 were unlucky not to win at Murrayfield as a score from charge-down Charlie helped England pick up the victory. However, that proved to be the start of something under Lancaster as England went on to end with four wins from five before that December triumph.
Now it seems the English arrive at the next leg of their plan going forward to Rugby World Cup 2015 as Lancaster chooses to go with Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees as his much-desired ball playing number 12, a move he has craved for some time. Lancaster clearly believes the ex-Leicester Tiger has what England is missing – so much so that he has left expected replacement Jonathan Joseph out of the matchday 23.
The move is a risk of course as not only does it see Brad Barritt move out one position to 13, it also begs the question if the Saracen is the right player to profit from these supposed improved English attacking options. One option other than starting Joseph was to go with the familiar Barritt alongside Owen Farrell combination which has served Saracens so well on numerous occasions, recently against Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup (granted they are struggling). Should the exciting move pay off though, England will have another string to their bow and a long-term skilful midfield foil to either Farrell, Toby Flood or Freddie Burns.
The visitors to Twickenham have their own project given a platform this weekend as Sean Maitland makes the step up from Glasgow duty to the Scotland jersey. It has been a swift transition – unlike Tim Visser – but the former Crusaders finisher is a geniune outlet.
Despite Scotland being the current Wooden Spoon holders, England will not be cavalier on Saturday despite this week’s strange outburst from Jim Telfer. Why? Well on paper this is a side that can mix it with all their Six Nations rivals as, particularly at lock and back-row.
Another Saracen, Kelly Brown, is rightly retained as captain for the Championship and with Johnnie Beattie rewarded for excellent form at Montpellier, Scotland won’t be bullied up front. Such an issue has seldom been the case as it regularly boils down to creativity in the backline. And Johnson has seemingly addressed that he requires Greig Laidlaw back at scrum-half and the more flair-oriented Ruaridh Jackson controlling matters from fly-half.
From both team’s selections, it could be an open game as the Scottish public craves more than the four tries they scored in last year’s Six Nations. England meanwhile weren’t much better with seven crossings but with one year under their belt, the bar has been raised.
Ones to watch:
For England: It would have been interesting to see whether Billy Twelvetrees was named in the side had Manu Tuilagi been fit. The combination, while possibly not as robust as the Barritt-Tuilagi axis would offer England more on the creative front. As it is, Barritt is to wear 13 this weekend while Twelvetrees gets his first run wearing white. You can guarantee the camera will be focussed on both he and hooker Tom Youngs before kick-off as Leicester’s converted centre is named ahead of Dylan Hartley. That is a selection based on form.
For Scotland: The return of Johnnie Beattie sees David Denton pushed to the bench for this opener. Beattie’s strong form for Montpellier has earned him his recall. The 27-year-old won his last cap in 2011 and with Denton in reserve, the visitors have real quality in their squad. Stuart Hogg announced himself to the Six Nations stage last season but it is the two players either side of him who most of Saturday’s attention will be focussed on as Tim Visser and Sean Maitland form a new wing partnership. Quality, yes, but will they receive the service.
Head-to-head: A couple of positions create interest on Saturday and they are the wing and openside. Mike Brown‘s switch to number 11 proved a masterstroke from Stuart Lancaster towards the end of 2012 and his battle with debutant Sean Maitland promises much. Maitland and Tim Visser have the potential to become a profitable combination, but Brown more than held his own against Cory Jane so will fancy his chances against another player from New Zealand’s north island. Another battle of interest comes between the captains.
2012: England won 13-6 at Murrayfield
2011: England won 16-12 at Eden Park
2011: England won 22-16 at Twickenham
2010: 15-15 draw at Murrayfield
2009: England won 26-12 at Twickenham
2008: Scotland won 15-9 at Murrayfield
2007: England won 42-20 at Twickenham
2006: Scotland won 18-12 at Murrayfield
2005: England won 43-22 at Twickenham
2004: England won 35-13 at Murrayfield
2003: England won 40-9 at Twickenham
Prediction: Despite little pressure being on the visitors under their new boss, England will have too much here and should start their campign with a victory by around 15 points!
England: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Brad Barritt, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Mike Brown, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (capt), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 David Wilson, 18 Mako Vunipola, 19 Courtney Lawes 20 James Haskell, 21 Danny Care, 22 Toby Flood, 23 David Strettle.
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Sean Lamont, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Johnnie Beattie, 7 Kelly Brown (capt), 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Dougie Hall, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Ross Ford, 17 Moray Low, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Alastair Kellock, 20 David Denton, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Max Evans.
Date: Saturday, 2 February
Kick-off: 16:00 GMT
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: John Lacey (Ireland) and Leighton Hodges (Wales)