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Scotland will have to travel to Twickenham with real belief

It was probably the only time in the 25 years I have covered Test rugby that Scotland have gone into a meeting with their oldest rivals as favourites.

Stuart Lancaster has a canny head on his shoulders. Picture: Getty
Stuart Lancaster has a canny head on his shoulders. Picture: Getty

Everyone knew they had only lost the crucial World Cup meeting with England a few weeks earlier because they were chasing the extra points required to get through to the quarter-finals since they needed not only to win, but to do so by an eight-point margin.

Since then, English rugby had been in typical turmoil with off-field nonsense during the tournament followed by embarrassing leaks of reports into what had gone on.

The events of that day and what followed throughout 2012 spoke hugely to the respective sporting psyches of the two nations, the Test-playing year concluding with Stuart Lancaster's England ending New Zealand's world record unbeaten run and establishing a record of their own with the size of their victory over the All Blacks on the day Scotland lost to Tonga and Andy Robinson his job as head coach.

Where English players seem to need relatively little evidence to believe themselves to be potential world beaters, so any hard-won Scottish self-confidence is so brittle that it can shatter irreparably upon the slightest setback.

Perhaps an awareness of that, dating back to his playing days, goes some way towards explaining, and even justifying, Gregor Townsend's slightly defensive response when one of the more generous-minded souls in the Scottish media pack asked him on Sunday whether victory over Northampton had only heightened the frustration felt about the rest of the previously winless campaign.

After pointing towards the best aspects of their efforts in their previous matches, he countered by saying: "I'd like to focus on the positive feelings that I have just now, rather than frustrations," before admitting it had not been the campaign they had wanted. The trouble is we have heard an awful lot in this, the most results-oriented business in the world, about focusing on positives in the face of Scottish defeat.

As with the way those questioning the SRU strategic target of winning the 2015 World Cup have been criticised for their negativity, though, it is far too trite to dismiss non-believers as doom-merchants.

Maybe our players' egos are so fragile that they need constant reassurance that they are doing well, but for those who have heard it all too often, the assessment offered by Al Kellock, the Glasgow captain, was more welcome.

In tone and content there was something almost reminiscent of Todd Blackadder, Kellock's captain in his professional rugby infancy at Edinburgh, in the authoritative way he outlined just how little consolation could be taken by a squad that is now more than strong enough to compete at that level.

Getting the balance right between realistic aspiration and maintaining confidence will always, it seems, be the biggest task facing Scottish leaders.

By contrast, there was an awful lot of talk yesterday among the English contingent at the RBS 6 Nations launch about the need to avoid hubris following their thrashing of the All Blacks. From a Scottish perspective, the trouble is that Englaznd may have the perfect man in charge in Stuart Lancaster, the former Scotland age-grade cap who has worked his way through the coaching ranks in the English game.

"I don't have to address managing expectation internally because I don't think there's anyone among the management team, or the coaching team or the players who is getting too far ahead of themselves," he said yesterday. "We're a pretty grounded group so we'll recognise the bits we did well in the autumn and we'll recognise the bits we need to do better."

Under his charge, you rather expect they will, which means England are unlikely to beat themselves next week as they sometimes do and, in turn, that Scotland will have to travel with real belief to have any chance of creating an upset, rather than merely making positive noises.

The pictures accompanying the feature on one of Scotland's finest in the promotional magazine being distributed at yesterday's RBS Six Nations Championship launch in London only seemed to highlight how little attention is being paid to last season's "Wooden Spoon" winners.

On the facing page alongside the headline referring to hard-hitting flanker Al Strokosch was a full page black-and-white photograph which, after much head-scratching, was reckoned by the assembled Scottish media pack to be of All Black Adam Thompson.

Turn over the page and the first action picture accompanying the rest of the Strokosch feature got the right team and the right department, but was of Ross Rennie.

Then again, maybe they know something down south that we do not going by Chris Robshaw's assessment of the Caledonian threat.

"You look at their back-row and Rennie, Denton and Kelly Brown are world-class opponents, who are very big threats which you need to nullify," he observed.

Could it be that the first name on the England captain's lips was that of a player who has been sidelined since damaging a shoulder during the meeting with the All Blacks in early November, offers a hint of hope that England are so typically over-confident that they have failed to take the opposition seriously, then?

Sadly not, it seems, since Robshaw also noted that they have been concentrating on themselves so far before switching their attention to the opposition at the start of next week.

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