England are preparing themselves for a pitch battle in more ways than one when they face Scotland for the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield on Saturday.
It was at the Edinburgh ground where England coach Stuart Lancaster began his time in charge of the national side with a hard-fought 13-6 win two years ago.
They now head north on the back of an agonising 26-24 defeat away to France in the first round of the Six Nations, a loss that prolonged the wait for a first Red Rose Grand Slam since England’s World Cup-winning year of 2003.
But Lancaster was sufficiently encouraged by the way England, who had been 3-16 down early on, rallied to lead 24-19 before losing to Gael Fickou’s converted try three minutes from time, to name an unchanged matchday party for the first time in his 23 Tests in charge.
The only lingering fitness doubt concerned Gloucester wing Jonny May, who went off early at the Stade de France with a broken nose.
“It’s good to be able to select the same players and they are all determined to put last week’s result behind us and build on the performance,” said Lancaster.
England showed plenty of ambition in Paris, not always a quality associated with the men in white shirts, and it will be interesting to see if they can play the same sort of game on Saturday, with captain Chris Robshaw determined they shouldn’t suffer another “plucky” defeat.
But the fact that England haven’t scored more than 15 points at Murrayfield since 2004 tells the story of how Scotland, whatever else may be happening, can always rouse themselves for rugby’s oldest international match.
And the fact Scotland, once more paying the price for a back division lacking a cutting edge, were well beaten 28-6 by Ireland in Dublin last weekend will provide additional motivation.
“Scotland will be hugely motivated by their defeat in Dublin and, as we found two years ago, Murrayfield is a tough place to play,” said Lancaster.
While England are unchanged, Scotland coach Scott Johnson has dropped captain Kelly Brown, giving the flanker’s place to test debutant Chris Fusaro and leadership duties to scrum-half Greig Laidlaw.
“Fusaro is picked to do a certain role and we believe there’s an opportunity for him to do it,” Johnson said.
“England are powerful, they have an edge to their side and are assertive and aggressive,” the Australian added.
“They will probably consider themselves unlucky last weekend but it’s not always brute force that wins these games.”
In a bid to find an elusive spark behind the scrum and so help Scotland end a run of four straight defeats by England, Edinburgh centre Matt Scott has been promoted from the bench with Tommy Seymour replacing injured New Zealand-born wing Sean Maitland.
Bad weather has often been a key factor in the quality of Calcutta Cup rugby and, should the forecast rain arrive, the 132nd Scotland-England clash may well be something of a slog.
However, a new and worrying dimension is the state of the once pristine Murrayfield pitch.
The grass at the Edinburgh ground has come under attack from parasitic nematodes this season, making scrums in particular a dangerous lottery, with the packs struggling to keep their footing on the loose turf and even backs in open play undone by the poor surface.
This week saw the Scottish Rugby Union announce plans to install a new hybrid pitch at Murrayfield in time for next season, but that may be scant consolation to the players in action on Saturday.
“I hope I’m wrong but I do have concerns that the state of the pitch will have a big influence over who wins,” former Scotland prop Peter Wright told the Daily Mail.
“Such an important game could be decided by a player losing his footing at the set-piece and giving away a penalty. That shouldn’t be the way a team wins a Six Nations match.”
2013: England won 38-18, London
2012: England won 13-6, Edinburgh
2011: England 16-12, Auckland (World Cup pool match)
2011: England won 22-16, London
2010: Scotland and England drew 15-15, Edinburgh
2009: England won 26-12, London
2008: Scotland won 15-9, Edinburgh
2007: England won 42-20, London
2006: Scotland won 18-12, Edinburgh
2005: England won 43-22, London
Scotland: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Greig Laidlaw (captain) 8 David Denton, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Ryan Wilson, 5 Jim Hamilton, 4 Tim Swinson, 3 Moray Low, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Ryan Grant.
Replacements: 16 Scott Lawson, 17 Alasdair Dickinson, 18 Geoff Cross, 19 Jonny Gray, 20 Johnnie Beattie, 21 Chris Cusiter, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Max Evans.
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Luther Burrell, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Danny Care, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (captain), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Ben Morgan, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Brad Barritt, 23 Alex Goode.
Date: Saturday, February 8
Venue: Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Kick-off: 17.00 (17.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Overnight rain clearing in Edinburgh, then becoming heavier by evening. Winds easing. High of 6°C and a low of 4°C
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: George Clancy (Ireland), Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)
AFP & rugby365