The Calcutta Cup will be on the line on Saturday at Twickenham when England host Scotland in Steve Borthwick’s first game in charge since succeeding Eddie Jones.
Last year, Scotland edged a close battle at BT Murrayfield, 20-17, a year on from victory in south-west London, their first since 1983.
Two days out from the blockbuster encounter, the team announcements have given us some insight into what the teams will look to do.
Steve Borthwick will be hoping to make a winning start to his reign as England head coach on Saturday.
After much anticipation following his appointment in December, his first XV offers a healthy mix of old, new and returning names.
And the omens are good for Borthwick, with only one of England’s previous six head coaches losing their first game in charge.
Debut for Hassell-Collins on the wing
Ollie Hassell-Collins will win his first England cap against Scotland, selected on the wing ahead of a host of more experienced options.
The 24-year-old has had to bide his time following his first call-up to the senior squad in the summer of 2021.
He is London Irish’s top try-scorer in all competitions so far this season and is tied second among all players in the Gallagher Premiership, so will be sure to bring a clinical touch to an England side which seemed a little try-shy during the Autumn Nations Series.
The Exiles star has paid particular attention to the defensive side of his game since breaking into the first team at Gtech Community Stadium, which was evident in Irish’s dramatic win over Saracens in December.
Hassell-Collins’ reading of the game and subsequent tackle on Jackson Wray when his team were down to 12 men was a huge factor in their victory that day, so make no mistake, this flyer can certainly back up his attacking verve with defensive solidity.
Borthwick said of his new star: “He’s a terrific player, he’s got speed, he takes people on the outside, he can cut back in off his left foot, he’s good under the high ball and defensively, at 100kg and 6ft4, he can hit and he can run fast.
“He’s an excellent player and a fantastic young man and it’s brilliant that he’s in our team.”
Smith and Farrell axis to continue…for now
One area of the pitch under the microscope after a difficult autumn was the makeup of England’s back-line.
Borthwick has chosen to stick with Marcus Smith at fly-half and Owen Farrell outside him, while there is a return for Joe Marchant at 13, which means there is no place in the squad for Manu Tuilagi.
Whether a change in coach yields a change in fortune for the dual playmaker approach remains to be seen, and Borthwick did not give anything away when talking about the future of that particular pairing.
“I think it’s the right combination for this game,” said Borthwick. “You see how Marcus Smith and Joe Marchant connect both with ball in hand and the great attacking kicks that Marcus has and the way Joe finds those.
“Owen has played very well in the 12 shirt for England for many years and some of England’s best performances have been with him there.
“He has certainly talked to me in the past about how he enjoys playing with another ball-player.”
New-look back row
Not one of England’s back row played a single minute during the Autumn Nations Series.
Granted, Alex Dombrandt was injured for much of the early half of the season, but he has been handed an immediate recall, as has flanker Lewis Ludlam.
And perhaps the best story of the day is the selection of Ben Curry, who with just one cap to his name so far, deputises for twin brother Tom, who is sidelined with a hamstring tear.
Maro Itoje stays in the second row and is partnered with Ollie Chessum, giving the pack a fresh and dynamic look, not to mention the presence of livewire Ben Earl on the replacements bench.
Scotland will look to make it three in a row against England for the first time in more than half a century and Gregor Townsend has made some big calls with his team selection.
Two years ago, the Scots ended a 38-year wait for victory at Twickenham, but after achieving that in front of an empty stadium, they are desperate to repeat the trick with the stands packed.
To do so, Townsend has named an exciting side, with some intriguing selection calls:
Turn the clock back 18 months and Chris Harris and Ali Price were starting Test for the British & Irish Lions. Now, neither has cracked Scotland’s starting XV, with the latter missing out on the matchday squad altogether.
Townsend highlighted the importance of rewarding players in form, with London Irish’s Ben White preferred to Price, whose Glasgow teammate George Horne is on the bench.
Meanwhile, Harris misses out to the Glasgow pairing of Sione Tuipulotu and Huw Jones in the midfield.
Townsend explained: “It was a difficult selection, so many players have been in really good form. We’ve backed form now, that means a couple of experienced players who have played a lot of rugby for us, have missed out.
“But we believe this is the strongest squad that we can pick for this weekend. The level of competition in training has been excellent and the players that have missed out on selection have shown real professionalism and competitiveness to raise the standard of our attack and defence.
“Cohesion is important when you only have four training sessions to prepare a team. Sione (Tuipulotu) and Huw’s (Jones) cohesion in attack and defence has been great to see. Huw has been in brilliant form.
“Ben White has really impressed us since he came into the group. He started in the summer in the second Test against Argentina and played really well.
“He’s been waiting for opportunities with Ali playing really well for us too but we feel his form since the autumn for London Irish has gone to another level, his kicking game, his competitiveness, looking for gaps as well and his defence.”
Elsewhere, Kyle Steyn’s form for Glasgow on the wing earns him a spot in the absence of the injured Darcy Graham, preferred to Sean Maitland.
And in the pack, Luke Crosbie’s outstanding performances for Edinburgh, notably in two clashes with Saracens, have earned him the nod in the back row.
Townsend explained: “Luke Crosbie is another form selection. That’s a tricky one because when you see Andy Christie playing well for Saracens, Josh Bayliss playing well for Bath, Jack Dempsey playing well for Glasgow, we could have put a different back row out.
“But Luke has really stepped up, in the two games against Saracens in particular, we feel he brought physicality on both sides of the ball and huge effort. He’ll be doing that this weekend.”
Injured players not risked
There had been some hope that Zander Fagerson would be fit for the encounter but he is not risked this week, with WP Nel starting at tighthead prop and Simon Berghan named on the bench.
That will be a concern, with Fagerson having made the No.3 jersey his own in recent years, although Nel has managed to defy his 36 years to produce some fine displays for Edinburgh this season.
It is a similar scenario for Hamish Watson, who made his comeback from injury last weekend. The flanker, who was named 2021 Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship, needs a little more time in the eyes of Townsend, opening up the opportunity for Crosbie.
Both should come back into contention for the round two clash with Wales, although in Watson’s case, that may be dependent on how effective the back row is at Twickenham.
Richie Gray returns
You have to go back six years for the last time Richie Gray started a Championship match for Scotland, also against England at Twickenham.
He will be hoping for a better result this time around – Scotland were beaten 61-21 – but more importantly, it is a well-deserved comeback for the lock.
One of the most gifted, athletic forwards Scotland have ever produced, Gray is playing some of the best rugby of his career at the age of 33.
A decade on from touring with the Lions, and off the back of some excellent form for Glasgow, he will have a big role to play if Scotland are to extend their excellent recent record in the Calcutta Cup.