England at sixes, Scotland at sevens


In the lead up to the Calcutta Cup clash in Edinburgh, much talk has been spent on England's lack of a traditional openside flanker, a role filled by Chris Robshaw during their ill-fated World Cup campaign last year and by James Haskell on Saturday - both of whom play on the blindside for their clubs.

This is an area where their northern neighbour, despite their limited player pool, have strength in depth. Scotland start John Barclay and John Hardie on Saturday, both of whom usually play at openside, and have a third openside, Blair Cowan, on the bench.

A blindside and openside flanker, number six and seven respectively, get their names from where they hang off the side of the scrum.

Opensides need to be fast and dynamic as they cover the side of the scrum furthest from the touchline. They are often first to a tackle or contact area where they must try to nullify the opposing attack and pilfer the ball.

Players used to covering the narrower blindside of the pitch tend to be bulkier, strong tacklers and are used to add ballast to the scrum and as a wrecking ball in attack.

In the professional era of the sport, many argue these traditional definitions are less relevant and that flankers must be proficient in all areas.

During the World Cup current England coach Eddie Jones, then working as a TV pundit and as coach of Japan, described Robshaw as a “six and a half”.

He was not being complimentary but he appreciates the former captain's solid presence and said last week he felt he could become world class on the blindside.

A glance at this season's statistics from the Aviva Premiership shows there is a deficiency in the England team where Scotland can get the upper hand.

Sky Sports placed Haskell ninth in its list of breakdown steals by English-qualified flankers, making just four steals in 11 appearances, tied with Robshaw who made four in 10 matches.

Jack Clifford, who has taken Robshaw's number seven shirt at Harlequins and is on the bench for Saturday's match, lies 16th with three steals in 14 matches.

If Scotland's dominance in this area swings the balance in their favour, Jones may be accused of making the type of selection errors that cost his predecessor, Stuart Lancaster, his job.

He has spurned the services of Gloucester openside Matt Kvesic, who tops Sky's list with 15 steals in 12 games, for this week's Six Nations opener.

Scotland can at the very least hope to disrupt England and gain more possession by targeting the breakdown.

The best scenario for Scotland is that England's players give away penalties for holding on to the ball in the tackle, allowing Greig Laidlaw to rack up the goals that have so often proved the difference in this fixture.

Utilising his ball stealers was a tactic Scotland coach Vern Cotter employed in their heart-breaking World Cup quarter-final defeat by Australia to try to neutralise their twin opensides, Michael Hooper and David Pocock.

His selection is as deliberate now as it was then. Cotter has chosen to leave out the hulking figures of Adam Ashe and Josh Strauss, often employed by their clubs on the blindside or at number eight, while the favoured blindside during the World Cup Ryan Wilson did not even make the squad.


Original source: England at sixes, Scotland at sevens