England and Scotland renew Six Nations rivalry in defining Murrayfield clash



How ready will England be, when the first high ball is hung up into the blustering winds above Murrayfield and their Six Nations campaign gets underway? A build-up which has been disrupted by injuries will be met head on by a Scotland side emboldened by victory at Twickenham last year, but who will have to deal with wearing the favorites tag this time around.

The mind games have already kicked off. Scotland are not just favourites, they are “overwhelming, red-hot favourites” according to England head coach Eddie Jones – a line delivered with a twinkle of the eye and a nod towards an opening fixture that could go a long way to defining how the Six Nations pans out.

It is a fascinating fixture for both for a variety of reasons, given the context of where the two sides stand heading into the tournament, but it is hard to envisage a scenario where the battle between Marcus Smith and Finn Russell is not the central and most compelling theme of the latest chapter in the sport’s oldest rivalry.

Smith and Russell both possess an ability to shape attacks in their image and change the game in a moment. Such is their flair, excitement levels in Murrayfield will rise upon every touch, and this meeting between two of the most exciting No 10s in world rugby can perhaps only be dampened by yet another Calcutta Cup staged in miserable February weather. Unfortunately, based upon the early forecasts, it appears that could be the case.

Smith has already impressed on a Lions tour and in an Autumn Nations Series win over South Africa at Twickenham, but these will be different conditions for the 22-year-old to feature in. A first Six Nations appearance in what is set to be his sixth England cap, it comes in “hostile” territory and as part of a team where inexperience is a common theme.

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Jones claimed that Scotland are “probably two years” ahead of his England side and the team sheet does suggest two teams in different stages of their development. Seven of England’s starting XV at Murrayfield will start the game having won 10 or fewer international caps, Nick Isiekwe and Sam Simmonds are set to make their first England appearances since 2018, and Tom Curry will be holding it all together as the youngest England captain since 1988.

It’s a bold call from Jones to double down when England’s backs looked against the wall. With Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill, Jonny May and Anthony Watson all unavailable, the possibility of an opening defeat will pile the pressure on an inexperienced side and threaten an uncomfortable spring, but this is also a team featuring players who are unburdened by last season’s fifth place finish in the championship.

Finn Russell’s clash with England No 10 Marcus Smith will be key

(Getty Images)

Smith was always going to be the one to watch here but the absence of Farrell and the uncertainty at center means the spotlight on the fly-half has grown that bit brighter. Henry Slade and Elliot Daly is the latest midfield partnership under Jones, and Smith will be surrounded by movement, as well as that of Max Malins and Joe Marchant on the wings and Freddie Steward at full-back. It is an exciting prospect, but an untested one.

England’s rookies have stuck to the party line as they prepare for fans to return to a Six Nations game for the first time in two years. There has been an extra edge to these fixtures in recent times and “hostile” was the buzzword again, as Jones spoke of how he expects Scotland to attempt to get under the skins of his players. Smith, Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler were named as potential targets as England dug their trenches.

That atmosphere is set to be further enhanced by a sense that the hosts have a real opportunity to lay down an early claim with an opening victory, but that comes with the pressure of expectation. Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend responded to Jones’s early mind games by attempting to off-load the favorites tag as if it was a hot potato.

If anything, it illustrates the continued progress Scotland have made under Townsend in recent years, but the hesitancy to own their status as contenders speaks to the fact that the time has come for greater consistency and a genuine run at the title.

Last season’s campaign was one bookended by impressive victories over England and France but in it contained the frustrating defeats to Ireland and Wales that derailed any hopes they had – and an opening defeat at Murrayfield would be just as damaging.

Scotland are 12 months down the line and their squad continues to be settled. While England’s team had the feel of 25 names being thrown up in the air and landing anywhere, there were no surprises in Scotland’s selection and their line-up features continuity and familiarity throughout, as well as eight Lions.

They will play to the tune of Russell and as Murrayfield waits, in hope as well as expectation, it would give Jones an endless amount of satisfaction to emerge with an England victory that shows why they were favorites all along.


www.independent.co.uk

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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