England bracing for niggly Scots in Murrayfield cauldron
Round one of the Six Nations was a revelation.
England wasn't as good as expected.
Scotland was better than expected.
How well those impressions hold up when they intersect in round two on Saturday at Edinburgh will go a long way to determining the fate of each team in this championship.
Both teams were losers on foreign soil on the opening weekend but both are still in title contention until fulltime at Murrayfield.
England, the pre-championship favorite, has the most to lose against its oldest foe.
The recent Rugby World Cup finalist was humbled by France's novices 24-17 last weekend in Paris.
A promise to inflict on France "brutal physicality" backfired as England discovered it didn't have any; neither to prevent the inspired French from going up 24-0 nor to pound the ball in from close to the tryline.
Coach Eddie Jones has dialed down the rhetoric this week, limiting himself to calling Scotland a "niggly" team which "goads" opponents into hitting the roof.
But Jones revealed the depth of his disgust in four unforced changes; dropping scrumhalf Ben Youngs and making forwards Joe Marler, Charlie Ewels and Courtney Lawes also pay for the flaccid first-half performance. Youngs has been Jones' main scrumhalf in his tenure, tallying 96 caps, plus two more for the British Lions. He made his debut at Murrayfield 10 years ago, and became England's most capped scrumhalf in this fixture last year.
But he's been replaced by Willi Heinz, older than Youngs by three years at 33. Heinz, a New Zealander who captains Gloucester, made England's World Cup squad with only one cap. Heinz is the type Jones craves more of; someone smart enough to change a strategy that isn't working. He's an intelligent, consistent No. 9 who stays calm in a crisis and helps others think better.
Those are compelling virtues for an England player in a stadium where they tend to struggle.
Jones also remained committed to Tom Curry at No. 8 and George Furbank at fullback. Curry, out of position, made no impact against France, while Furbank was error-prone on debut in the Paris rain. Rain is in the forecast again, ahead of Storm Ciara's arrival on Saturday night.
"We don't have a one-game selection policy," Jones said. "They have to go through this apprenticeship and sometimes they go through some pain at the start of it."
Scotland felt pain, too, after blowing numerous scoring chances in Ireland's 22 last weekend in Dublin. Scotland finished up losing 19-12. The score flattered Ireland. Coach Gregor Townsend showed how satisfied he was with the effort by making only one change to the starting lineup, bringing back fit-again No. 8 Magnus Bradbury for debutant Nick Haining.
Scotland played well enough that banished playmaker Finn Russell was informed by Townsend he wasn't needed again. Russell's understudy, Adam Hastings, kicked all of Scotland's points in his first Six Nations start, and was glad to answer the doubters and keep the flyhalf job against England.
“I just wanted to put in a half-decent performance and gain a bit of trust,” Hastings said.
“People have questioned my ability and performances so it was nice to put in a steady performance. There was a bit of nerves there. But I just went out and played my usual game and didn't think too much about it all.”
Those comments also summed up Scotland, whose daring attitude almost earned them a rare victory in Dublin. Repeat the trick, and toppling England at Murrayfield is far less farfetched.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg (captain), Sean Maitland, Huw Jones, Sam Johnson, Blair Kinghorn, Adam Hastings, Ali Price; Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson, Jamie Ritchie, Jonny Gray, Scott Cummings, Zander Fagerson, Fraser Brown, Rory Sutherland. Reserves: Stuart McInally, Allan Dell, Simon Berghan, Ben Toolis, Nick Haining, George Horne, Rory Hutchinson, Chris Harris.
England: George Furbank, Jonny May, Jonathan Joseph, Owen Farrell (captain), Elliot Daly, George Ford, Willi Heinz; Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Lewis Ludlam, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Tom Dunn, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Ben Earl, Ben Youngs, Ollie Devoto.
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports