To do so, his team will have to do something no previous Scotland side has and that’s win two games on the bounce at Twickenham. England’s HQ has never been a happy hunting ground for the Scots, who can count their victories here on the fingers of one hand. The fact that the last one came as recently as 2021 has cut little ice with the bookmakers who make England odds-on favourites. Scotland are 10/3 outsiders, which seems overly generous given Townsend’s Calcutta Cup record as head coach. Whatever happens after his contract expires later this year, he deserves great credit for gaining the upper hand in this fixture, something previously unthinkable in the pro era. Prior to his arrival in summer 2017 Scotland had lost eight consecutive Test matches against England. There were similarly grim runs in the 1990s – 10 losses in a row – and the 2000s – five in a row.
There’s a but, though. The three wins and one remarkable draw that Scotland have achieved under Townsend have all come against Eddie Jones’ England. The mischievous Aussie was given the boot in December and replaced by Steve Borthwick, reward for his title-winning deeds with Leicester Tigers the previous season. It’s a whole new challenge and Townsend acknowledged it was difficult to guess what Borthwick’s gameplan would be, but given how little time the new coach has had to work with his players he would expect them to keep it simple. “We believe they’ll play a game based around their forwards, based around effort and a kicking strategy,” said the Scotland coach. “So we have to be ready for that. But also they’ve got so many quality players throughout the team they can also play a different way. They can move the ball to width so we have to adapt to that too. The challenge is first playing a quality side away from home but also getting the game we’ve worked on over the last few weeks into our performance. Doing well in attack and defence and then the transitions. That’s the most difficult thing – getting your game out there. And that’s what we’ve been focusing on in these last few weeks.”
Scotland managed to impose themselves on England at Twickenham very successfully two years ago and the 11-6 scoreline didn’t do justice to the visitors’ performance. “We were really comfortable and we negated what they were looking to do,” said Jamie Ritchie, the Scotland captain.
Twickenham was empty that day but will be rocking with 82,000 voices on Saturday. Scotland had a run-out at the stadium on Friday and had a beatbox alongside them, pumping out sounds as they trained in the south-west London sunshine. They looked upbeat and relaxed, particularly Finn Russell as he juggled rugby balls for the grateful photographers. The stand-off has not lost at Twickenham since 2017 and much will hinge on his performance against England’s young maestro, Marcus Smith. While Russell will supply the ammunition, Scotland need their strike runners to fire the bullets. Darcy Graham, Europe’s stand-out winger in the autumn, is out with a knee injury so there is even more reliance on Duhan van der Merwe and Stuart Hogg to deliver. The worry for Townsend is that both players come into the game after long injury lay-offs.
Van der Merwe, who has scored 14 tries in 23 games for Scotland, has not played since limping off in Edinburgh’s defeat by Glasgow on December 30. Hogg, Scotland’s all-time top try-scorer, has not played competitively since Christmas Eve. Townsend is confident both can step straight back into the Test arena as he looks to start what could be his final Six Nations with a bang. He could never be accused of being a cautious coach and made some bold calls with his selection this week, picking a side that looks geared to attack. The decision to opt for Huw Jones ahead of Chris Harris at outside centre suggests Scotland think they can seize the initiative but the danger is that the absence of the resolute Harris could leave them vulnerable defensively. “We have to keep taking the game to England and be at the same level in the last minute of the game as when you started,” Townsend noted.
A bright start will be key, perhaps more difficult amid the bedlam created by a capacity crowd. “Our players are aware of what can go wrong when you’re not accurate and you’re not focused,” added Townsned. “Our last visit two years ago was very good. The mindset, the accuracy and the effort. If you look at the first halves of the two previous contests at Twickenham, England dominated. So if we don’t get it right we know we won’t win at the weekend.”
The absence of Hamish Watson and Zander Fagerson will test Scotland’s strength in depth and the selection of Ben White at scrum-half is something of a gamble but there is a refreshing confidence emanating from Townsend’s side that has seldom been seen on previous trips to London. When Scotland beat England four times in three seasons between 1970 and 1972 only one of the matches was at Twickenham. This is Townsend’s third match as head coach at the stadium and he remains unbeaten. If can still make that boast on Saturday night he will deserve all the plaudits that come his way.