Scotland staring down the barrel
March 9, 2011
Cheer has been hard to come by for Scotland this year © PA Photos
There have been some brave victories on home soil in the last 28 years - most notably the Grand Slam triumph in 1990 - but Scotland have now not won at Twickenham since 1983.
That is a dreadful statistic from a Scottish point of view, only matched by England's drought in Cardiff between 1963 and 1991, and if they lose again on Sunday they will have an unenviable record all to themselves.
Even more worrying is that England have scored more than 40 points four times since 2000, and even though Scotland kept it down to 26-12 two years ago they were still outscored by three tries to nil. I'm sure Andy Robinson will insist that Scotland will not feel intimidated, that they are looking forwards not backwards, but it must all have an effect, especially as they travel as complete underdogs yet again.
Three defeats in a row must have sapped their confidence and it will take a superhuman effort to take the field feeling totally positive when they know deep down that they cannot match England's firepower behind the scrum. The one thing they have going for them is that they have beaten England twice and drawn once on their last three visits to Murrayfield, so most of the team will have had a winning experience against the auld enemy.
England won just once against Wales between 1963 and 1980 and it definitely had an effect on their morale. We had no doubts that we would beat England if we played well. They knew it would take a massive effort to break the sequence.
This time England must be feeling very confident, even if they are playing it down in public. They have suffered a fair number of injuries but the replacements have stepped up so well there is no need to rush back Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes, arguably the stars of the autumn internationals, even though both are fit again. In fact, Tom Wood in particular has performed so well it would be harsh to drop him.
England have talked a lot about creating 'fortress Twickenham.' Three consecutive home matches have certainly helped in this year's Championship and I do not expect them to slip up now. The Scottish pack will give them a good workout but I will be very surprised if the match does not end in a resounding victory for the home side, and it could be a very long afternoon for Scottish fans if England go ahead early in the game.
A big win will effectively seal the Championship because England already have a healthy points difference advantage, but the most interesting game this weekend should be in Cardiff. If Wales can see off Ireland they will go to Paris next week with the Championship still beckoning. If Ireland win they will be even more determined to cause an upset in Dublin when England arrive looking for the Grand Slam. They could also still theoretically end up as champions.
Seeing off Ireland is something Wales have found very difficult in recent times. Amazingly, they have only beaten them once on home soil since 1983. Winning in Dublin has been no problem - eight wins during that period - but their only victory in Cardiff was the Grand Slam game in 2005. While Ireland have gone for the tried and trusted at No. 10, Ronan O'Gara starting instead of Jonathan Sexton, Warren Gatland has bowed to popular pressure by selecting James Hook in front of Stephen Jones.
There has been something of a public outcry about the way Hook has been treated. 'Why do you not play your best player in the position he wants to play?' is the gist of the argument from most Welsh supporters. Gatland will no doubt argue that it is a question of making the most of his resources and with Jonathan Davies, Tom Shanklin et al injured Wales' strongest XV had to include Jones and Hook against Italy.
With Davies back, Hook returns to his favourite position, where he will undoubtedly add a cutting edge. Dwayne Peel might be introduced sooner rather than later if Mike Phillips cannot deliver the ball quickly enough. Wales will need all their attacking flair if they are to end this dismal run against an Irish side that could and perhaps should have beaten France.
The Welsh scrummaging has been surprisingly solid without Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones and that could be a key area, along with the battle for back-row supremacy. Ireland probably have the more powerful ball carriers in Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip but Ryan Jones at last seems to be rediscovering the aggression he showed at the beginning of his career, while Sam Warburton and Danny Lydiate are getting better with every game. I have been fairly confident in my predictions so far but this one is too close to call.
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