Auld enemies to battle for World Cup progression
Updated: September 30, 2011, 04:39
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AUCKLAND, New Zealand(AP) Martin Johnson took only an instant to assess one of the seemingly endless questions about the ancient rivalry between England and Scotland before explaining how he thinks it will impact on Saturday's must-win Rugby World Cup clash.
"They're all our traditional foes. We're English!'' Johnson, the England team manager and 2003 World Cup-winning captain, told a packed news conference ahead of the match that could decide which of the two advances to the quarterfinals and which misses out of the first time.
Obviously he wants to play it down. Scotland coach Andy Robinson, who helped England win the 2003 title, is taking the opposite tack.
True, England has a lot of major rivalries, not the least being close neighbors Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
But the England-Scotland encounter is the oldest in international rugby, and the next edition promises to be one of the more epic. England has won 68 of the 128 tests dating back to 1871 and there have been 18 draws. The English won the only previous World Cup head-to-head, 9-6 in the 1991 semifinals. This is the first Anglo-Scottish clash on neutral soil.
"There's a lot of history there ... but that's all for the buildup really, the exterior,'' Johnson said. "For us it's about just going to play well, it doesn't matter if it's Scotland or whoever.''
England has won all three of its matches so far in Pool B and conceded just one try, and can only exit the tournament by losing and failing pick up a bonus point. Scotland needs to beat England by eight points or more - something it hasn't done in 25 years. Scotland's four wins in that span have all been at home, too.
"Historians like looking back. I'm the type of guy who likes looking forward,'' Robinson said Friday, "and looking forward to challenges that are there.''
The Scots always bring a lot of passion to contests against England. There won't be any bagpipes at Eden Park to help stir the emotions - World Cup organizers have seen to that with an unpopular ban on all musical instruments at matches. But as soon as they've sung Flower of Scotland, the unofficial anthem the memorializes a famous battle victory over the English in 1314, there's no doubt they'll be ready for action.
Robinson is tapping into the tension.
"People hype up England-Scotland, people hype up that it's Scotland's last chance,'' Robinson said. "There is a lot of emotion around it. I actually said to the players that they need to do whatever they need to do to get themselves ready for this game, and if it means taking it out on me and my English roots then they could do that.
"You've got to use every emotion. Rugby is an emotional game. There is tremendous rivalry and that's what you like about sport.''
That being said, Robinson may want to excuse himself from the dressing rooms when captain Alastair Kellock delivers a last pre-match message to the players.
Sean Lamont was moved off the wing and into midfield and Simon Danielli restored to the left wing to add pace and starch to the Scottish backline. Kellock and Euan Murray return to the scrum, which is where the Scots will challenge England head-on.
The Scottish backs haven't been impressive in wins over Romania and Georgia, or in last weekend's late 13-12 loss to Argentina, but they know it's a matter of harnessing the strengths that they have rather than desperately trying to score tries that will net them results.
"It's not a pile of points. Eight points, we need, it's not a massive difference,'' Lamont said. "England can leak tries and they've shown in this tournament that they can concede (penalties), so there's no reason why we can't get a few points against them.''
The English have been their own worst enemies, to a degree, so far. The forwards have conceded an uncharacteristic number of penalties and Jonny Wilkinson's frustration with kicking the new Cup ball caused a major embarrassment this week.
England has suspended two coaches from the Scotland match, intervening in a ball tampering fiasco to prevent a possibly harsher sanction from World Cup organizers.
The coaches contravened rules by switching balls for Wilkinson to take conversion attempts in the first half of the win over Romania.
Wilkinson, who has been off radar with the boot, didn't want to discuss it. Johnson said the issue hadn't been a distraction to the players, and the punishment fit the infringement.
He stuck with Wilkinson at flyhalf, preferring him to Toby Flood, and recalled Delon Armitage on the wing. In the forwards, Matt Stevens returns at loose head after an ankle injury and Courtney Lawes is back in the second row after a two-week suspension.
The fact that Scotland will be chasing points won't pose any extra problems for England in Johnson's estimation.
Scotland "are potentially dangerous, potentially vulnerable,'' he said. "We want to win the pool. They're coming to take us on. Simple.
"It's going to be tense, it's going to be nervy, there's going to be anxiety, it's going to be enjoyable. If I want a quiet life I can sit at home and watch it on TV.''
England: Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Mike Tindall, Delon Armitage, Jonny Wilkinson, Ben Youngs; James Haskell, Lewis Moody (captain), Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes, Louis Deacon, Dan Cole, Steve Thompson, Matt Stevens. Reserves: Dylan Hartley, Alex Corbisiero, Tom Palmer, Nick Easter, Richard Wigglesworth, Toby Flood, Matt Banahan.
Scotland: Chris Paterson, Max Evans, Joe Ansbro, Sean Lamont, Simon Danielli, Ruaridh Jackson, Mike Blair; Richie Vernon, John Barclay, Ally Strokosch, Alastair Kellock, Richie Gray, Euan Murray, Ross Ford, Allan Jacobsen. Reserves: Scott Lawson, Alasdair Dickinson, Nathan Hines, Ross Rennie, Chris Cusiter, Dan Parks, Nick de Luca.