It was just 13 months ago that Scotland brought England’s winning run to a shuddering halt in a Six Nations match at Murrayfield that saw Eddie Jones and his players harassed on and off the pitch.
England lost 25-13 that day, but more significant was the manner in which they were beaten. Out-muscled, out-fought and out-played, they were second best at every breakdown.
In the aftermath of last week’s comfortable win over Italy, attention had already turned to rectifying last year’s defeat when the Six Nations concludes this Saturday.
England will be watching warily as Ireland play Wales two hours earlier in a match that will determine whether the showdown with Scotland still has the championship title on the line.
Jones has already added fuel to the fire ahead of the Calcutta Cup clash by telling Scotland to expect “hostility” when they visit Twickenham.
“They pulled our pants down badly last year so we have work to do to make sure we finish the game with our pants up,” England’s head coach said. “This is their game. This is the one game they get themselves up for.”
Scotland may have not won at Twickenham since 1983, but last year’s victory showed what it means to players and fans alike. Owen Farrell and Ryan Wilson had a pre-match scuffle in the tunnel, while Jones was verbally abused by fans on his way back from the game.
Jones’s England have bounced back from the odd defeat before, such as the 2017 Six Nations finale in Ireland, but last year’s setback in Edinburgh gave opponents a template for beating them. It sent them on a five-match losing streak that saw them finish a lowly fifth in the championship and then lose a summer series in South Africa.
Jones was forced to rethink. Following the departure of Paul Gustard for Harlequins, he brought in New Zealand defence coach John Mitchell with a view to readying his team to compete for the ultimate prize later this year: the World Cup.
Tactics have been tinkered with and new players such as Tom Curry and Joe Cokanasiga have made their bows. England have suffered narrow defeats at the hands of New Zealand and Wales along the way, but there are signs this team can bounce back from adversity and are moving in the right direction when it matters most.
Regardless of the result in Cardiff, Saturday’s game gives England a chance to show Scotland how far they have come in the space of a year.
“The difference is night and day. We’re in a much better place now and a lot of that is to do with the atmosphere in the team,” said hooker Jamie George. “The lesson we’ve learned from last year is to try and get better each day rather than let the negativity get on top of us.”
The team have improved markedly at the breakdown and plan to use their renewed physicality to do to Scotland what was done to them last year.
Scrum coach Neal Hatley, known for his scientific approach, revealed that Jones had leaned on the theories of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein to drill home the physical force with which he wants his team to play.
“Eddie brought in Newton’s theory of force equals mass times acceleration,” Hatley said. “Some of it is going back to what’s simple: hit the ball hard, carry hard, pumping your legs, fighting in contact, fighting on the floor and then be aggressive over the ball. We will be fired up to win.”
The return of flanker Hamish Watson will be a huge plus for Scotland in their own efforts to win the breakdown battle, but also due to his ball-carrying ability. In a 20-minute cameo against Wales on his return from injury last time out he beat 10 defenders – a high for any Scottish player in this Six Nations. Back Finn Russell is also fit again.
England will hope to nullify that threat as they vie to put right last year’s defeat but, with the World Cup in Japan just six months away, also continue to build momentum for a more significant cause.