Rugby-England face midfield selection quandary for Scotland trip


By Mitch Phillips

LONDON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - England go into Saturday's trip to Scotland in the unaccustomed position of having won their first two Six Nations games but after two solid but unspectacular performances coach Steve Borthwick is expected to make some changes.

He picked the same starting teams to edge past Italy and Wales, both after falling heavily behind, and though there were occasional signs of the much-discussed "layered-on attack", it was hardly a revolutionary shift from the strait-jacketed tactics that took them to the World Cup semi-finals.

Having lost their first match in the previous four championships, Borthwick was happy for England to get a winning start but his remaining games - away to Scotland, home to Ireland and in France - represent a step up in quality.

Borthwick knows his side will need to find more in attack as well as further honing the new defensive approach.

One change has been enforced as first-choice scrumhalf Alex Mitchell has been ruled out of the rest of the championship with a knee ligament injury, leaving Danny Care in line to win his 99th cap, with Ben Spencer probably on the bench hoping for a first appearance since a cameo at the end of the 2019 World Cup final.

It is the midfield, however, where Borthwick is expected to tweak when he names his team on Thursday.

Fraser Dingwall and Henry Slade filled the centre berths in the first two games and, while they brought a certain amount of creative running, neither carry much heft.


The previously injured duo of Ollie Lawrence and Manu Tuilagi are now back in training and available.

Tuilagi, still only 32 though seemingly in and out of England teams for decades, also remains a potent ball carrying threat but sooner or later an England coach is going to have to call time on the injury-plagued centre and build for the long-term without him.

Lawrence, who had been in fantastic form for Bath before his hip injury, also brings power but has added evasiveness and looks the most likely to find his way into the starting XV.

Also in contention after injury is back row/lock George Martin, who rose to prominence near the end of the Rugby World Cup and is another who would add real bulk to England's pack.

He covers both positions well and would be an ideal replacement, leaving Maro Itoje and Ollie Chessum as the starting locks.

Scotland have won the previous three meetings in a run of four wins and a draw from the last six that came after a 10-match spell without a victory.

Their coach Gregor Townsend, who lost all 10 of the games he played against England, has overseen that recent turnaround and said the 11-6 victory in 2021, their first at Twickenham since 1983, was one of the best he had ever been involved in.

"It was just one of those great days when the team won through playing rugby and also defending really well. It was a very well-deserved victory and it inspired and engaged our supporters," he told the BBC's Rugby Union Daily podcast.

"We didn't grind it out, we didn't win by two points, we won by playing excellent rugby and continuing that in a physical second half."

His team backed that up with a 20-17 home win in 2022 before stunning England at Twickenham again last year with two fantastic Duhan van der Merwe tries in a 29-23 victory.

That formline has led to the rare situation of the Scots being narrow bookmakers' favourites to win the match, which kicks off at 16.45GMT at Murrayfield.

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ken Ferris)

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