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England stockpile forwards for Scotland trip with storm closing in | Robert Kitson | Sport


It could well be that the chief influence on Saturday’s Calcutta Cup encounter will not feature on the team sheet. Storm Ciara is gathering in strength out to the west and, if the forecasters are right, there is every chance she will scatter the best-laid plans of England and Scotland to the furthest corners of Murrayfield around teatime.

There must be something about England travelling over Hadrian’s Wall that prompts a sense of mischief among the weather gods. The English have been unable to triumph in Edinburgh on five of their 10 Six Nations visits and the elements have regularly played their part. This time, with predictions of 50mph gales and intensifying rain, it threatens to make a damp Paris last Sunday feel like Saint-Tropez in August.

It partly explains why England have opted for six forwards on the bench, given the distinct probability that twinkle-toed ballet dancers behind the scrum will be largely superfluous. By the sound of it, though, Eddie Jones may well have opted for a 6:2 split anyway, so strong is his desire to shut down Scotland at source.

That is precisely how South Africa, lest anyone forget, brought England to their knees in the World Cup final, sending on a whole new power-laden front five to continue their full-frontal examination of Jones’s pack. Rassie Erasmus’s selection was hailed as a masterstroke and, with the former Springboks scrum coach Matt Proudfoot having transferred to the red rose camp, Jones has opted to employ the same basic template.

G Furbank (Northampton Saints); J May (Leicester Tigers), J Joseph (Bath Rugby), O Farrell (Saracens, capt), E Daly (Saracens); G Ford (Leicester Tigers), W Heinz (Gloucester Rugby); M Vunipola (Saracens), J George (Saracens), K Sinckler (Harlequins), M Itoje (Saracens), G Kruis (Saracens), L Ludlam (Northampton Saints), S Underhill (Bath Rugby), T Curry (Sale Sharks). 
Replacements: T Dunn (Bath Rugby), E Genge (Leicester Tigers), W Stuart (Bath Rugby), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton Saints), B Earl (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers), O Devoto (Exeter Chiefs)

As Jones bluntly put it: “We’ve got an obvious plan we want to play against them. We’re not hiding from the fact we want to take them on up front.” Even his playmaker, George Ford, sounds happy about the prospect of a fresh consignment of English beef rumbling on after 50 minutes or so. “If you are on the field and see these guys running on, it gives you a lift,” he said. “You think: ‘Here we go, let’s go up to another level, we have got some brilliant, powerful, fresh legs coming on and we can impose our plan even more at 50-60 minutes.”

There is also a slightly better balance to the starting XV with the Saracens’ totems Mako Vunipola and George Kruis both recalled and the energetic Lewis Ludlam picked to start in the Six Nations for the first time. The Northampton back-row will wear No 6 and be expected to make life a little bit easier for Tom Curry at No 8No 8.

But hang on. Simply air-brushing the French game from the canvas would be way too convenient. And while England now possess an enhanced battalion of “finishers” – the most cringe-inducing term in rugby – there remain question-marks aplenty. They still have a hastily selected rookie at full-back – if anyone will be praying Ciara delays her arrival until after the game it will be George Furbank – and a replacement hooker in Tom Dunn, who has barely trained with the squad this week. Luke Cowan-Dickie may have been a potential starter had his partner not gone into labour; instead Dunn, who is joined on the bench by another uncapped forward in Ben Earl, will now be required to rise to the occasion from a virtual standing start.

It also feels faintly perverse that, with the stadium’s flags straining at their poles, there will be no starting visitor from the Premiership leaders Exeter, the club with the windiest home ground in England. In fairness, Jones has every reason to be more concerned about problems closer to terra firma. The visiting management are well aware Hamish Watson and Jamie Ritchie gave Ireland plenty of trouble at the breakdown in Dublin last weekend and Scotland will be in contention if the same pair are influential again.

There were also signs of an improving Scotland scrum, with Rory Sutherland among those seemingly benefiting from the arrival of the former France prop Pieter de Villiers as scrum coach. Anyone presuming that England, having jettisoned Bath’s Charlie Ewels and switched Courtney Lawes to the bench, will have a straightforward day up front is overlooking both Anglo-Scottish history and England’s recent rollercoaster fortunes in this fixture. Two years ago they were ambushed 25-13 by vibrant opponents, for whom Finn Russell and Huw Jones were outstanding, while last season they let a 31-0 lead slip at Twickenham en route to a 38-38 draw.

“In the Six Nations the rivalry’s always intense,” Jones said. “You know that in every game you’re up for a massive scrap. This game’s no different.”

It will feel rather less familiar for Ben Youngs who, when fit for selection, has started all bar three of England’s championship games since 2015. If his two appearances for the Lions are included this will be the Leicester player’s 99th Test but the inclusion of Willi Heinz is no huge surprise given events at the Stade de France.

England could experiment withany number of scrum-halves and still struggle in big away games if they do not become more collectively adaptable when the pressure comes on. Jones is forgiving about the World Cup final – “I can’t think of a team in the world who would have beaten South Africa that day … there’s no embarrassment” – but lose again and the weather will be the least of England’s problems.

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