As Gregor Townsend expressed his characteristic optimism ahead of a Test match the Scotland coach’s justification for it seemed to rely more on misplaced superstition than sporting analysis yesterday.

What looks a weaker Scotland team than the one which was the last to visit Twickenham when a record 61 points were conceded two years ago, is being written off against an England side that may have a chance of taking the title, but is also looking for revenge after last year’s shock reversal in Edinburgh.

In anticipating that prospect Townsend duly trotted out a claim that is regularly made on behalf of Scottish sides, saying: “If no-one does think we’re going to win then that’s fine. We believe we can win and that’s what we’re working to do this week. Scotland teams tend to be underdogs on a number of occasions and it usually brings the best out in them. We tend to rise to the occasion of playing teams that are better than us in the rankings. That’s been shown over the last few seasons and obviously with history and the way England are playing we’re going to have to rise to this occasion.”

It is trotted out so often, that it is generally accepted without demur, but aside from the rarest of isolated and distant examples such as the 1990 Grand Slam decider 2000 Calcutta Cup win, nothing could be further from the truth, particular in meaningful competition.


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In Rugby World Cups, over a 32-year period, no team has been as predictable as Scotland with victories registered in every match against lower ranked opposition, defeats to every higher ranked team faced and a solitary draw with France at the first ever tournament, played on neutral territory in New Zealand at a time when Five Nations results between the two tended to go with home advantage.

In Townsend’s time in charge there have been friendly wins against Australia both home and away, but last year’s victory against England stands alone as a defeat of a higher ranked team, while this season’s loss to France – hardly a shock given Scotland’s record in Paris – has been the only failure against a lower ranked team. Regarding visits to England, the statistics of his own career as player and coach completely undermine his notion, Scotland having lived down to expectations by losing every time since he made his international debut as a replacement at Twickenham in 1993 and he did acknowledge that.

“I don’t have great memories of it, because as you know we’ve not won there for a number of years,” he said of Twickenham. “I got my first cap there so that was I suppose a good memory, but you remember the losses rather than the fact that you maybe had a good game or you had things like your first cap. It’s ultimately how you feel in the changing room afterwards. Did the team win? We’ve got to turn the memories of Twickenham into more positive ones.”


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Against that background, his rationale seemed further flawed as he sought to explain why he believes Scotland perform better when expected to lose, since the one he chose served only to illustrate an inability to cope with expectation, along with a widespread willingness among Scots to delude themselves and buy into hype.

“I think two years ago a lot of people were tipping Scotland to win the game (when) a lot of people thought we were favourites,” Townsend asserted. “We have tended to rise to the occasion when we’ve been underdogs in the past. We’ve not handled being favourites as well as being underdogs, that’s for sure.”

What basis anyone might have had for expecting a Scotland win in 2017 when England had won all 16 matches under Eddie Jones at that point, is hard to recall.

In fairness, few saw it coming when Scotland did produce that rare upset in a competitive match against Jones’ England last year, ending a run of 24 wins in 25 matches under Jones and temporarily derailing them as they went on to lose five successive matches. Tomorrow’s match will be contested by very different teams, though with Joe Launchbury the only member of the England pack to have played in both 2017 and ’18 and Owen Farrell the only back to do so, while the England captain’s opposite number, Finn Russell, will be the only Scottish back to have started all three and Hamish Watson the only forward. That scale of change, allied to what happened in 2017, consequently means Townsend is understandably wary of making presumptions about the home team’s approach.

“We don’t know what game England are going to play this week. They played a power game in their first three games and they’ve kicked it more than any other team in the Championship, so if that’s the basis of their game we have to be ready for that,” he said. “(However) two years ago they played quickly, they moved the ball wide and they took us on in the outside channels, especially around 13 and wing. Last week they moved the ball wide against Italy, so they’ve shown they can play two games, but how they’ve started the tournament has been more about their defence.”