Calcutta Cup stakes higher than ever as Scotland and England renew rugby's oldest rivalry

Memorable try: Duhan van der Merwe on his way to scoring the match-winner at Twickenham 12 months ago (Getty Images)
Memorable try: Duhan van der Merwe on his way to scoring the match-winner at Twickenham 12 months ago (Getty Images)

Rugby has been fetishising the past ever since British Army officers ordered some Indian silversmiths to melt 270 rupees and craft the Calcutta Cup back in 1879. No England-Scotland showdown since has ended without rancour, and plenty of clashes have wound up in recriminations that might never end.

If England have their way at Murrayfield on Saturday, they will leave Scotland to swoon over past triumphs. It’s all part of the annual pomp and legend that sees two groups of grown men snorting and snarling at each other as they bid to steal a march.

Scotland have developed a sign over England as Indian as the Calcutta Cup itself, beating the Red Rose men in four of their last six meetings. The bedlam of the 38-38 draw at Twickenham in 2019 means that England have beaten Scotland just once since 2017. Lose in Edinburgh on Saturday, and England will equal their worst streak of four defeats in succession by the Scots.

England have won more than half of all the encounters between the nations, dating back to 1871. The archives dictate that England can ill accept a loss on Saturday that would equal a low point against Scotland not seen for 52 years.

From sublime skulduggery to ridiculous thuggery, this fixture has seen it all. England’s Dean Richards and Scotland’s John Jeffrey will never live down drunkenly booting the Calcutta Cup along Princes Street in 1988, causing more than £1,000 worth of damage.

Two years later England pitched up at Murrayfield scenting a Grand Slam, only to walk into a fuming Scotland side fired up by their own clean sweep aspirations. Fear most a group of Scots who consider themselves written off, especially when the English visitors can all too easily be characterised as arrogant.

Scotland prevailed 13-7 to claim the Grand Slam in a bitter encounter set to the backdrop of prime minister Margaret Thatcher imposing the poll tax north of the border. The annual England-Scotland football fixture had only been scrapped a year earlier, due to rising violence. And all that did was heap a whole load of new aggravation into an already tinder-box atmosphere.

Scotland’s legendary coach Jim Telfer later branded that 1990 encounter as “Bannockburn and Culloden rolled into one”. A seemingly unbeatable England were dragged into the maelstrom, with skipper Will Carling even dubbed “Thatcher’s captain”. Carling might have moved in certain high society circles, but that was a class warfare shot no one of a Red Rose persuasion had anticipated.

The snapshots of England being caught cold remain enshrined in championship myth, as much for the Scots’ unbridled love of beating their fierce foes as the relative rarity of such triumphs. Now we step into a weekend where Scotland are the favourites, a long uncharted territorial situation for the hosts.

No one on the far side of Hadrian’s Wall is about to look at Jamie George and call him Rishi Sunak’s skipper. England have even set about trying to make themselves hard to hate. And while that is more aimed at building a feel-good factor than ending the enmity, a happy by-product might just be a lightening of the typical Calcutta Cup tension.

England’s players and coaches have spent the week subtly killing Scotland with kindness

England’s players and coaches have spent the week subtly killing Scotland with kindness. Assistant coach Kevin Sinfield explained how much admiration and respect he has for the Scots, while back-row forward Ben Earl insisted England will savour every element of the Murrayfield atmosphere.

England are quite happy to embrace the pantomime aspect of the “hate” that surrounds this fixture, with all the home nations itching to pile in on the Red Rose team.

But while England will walk towards that hostility and pressure, no one in boss Steve Borthwick’s ranks is about to declare any hatred in return. This is a prudent balance and denies Gregor Townsend’s men some free ammunition. England’s reality is simply that precious few people in either set-up can remember in detail the last time Scotland were bona fide favourites.

They want a fresh start under new captain George. Win against the odds, and England might just be able to start plotting for a future both happy and glorious. Lose, and the Red Rose brigade will be back at the drawing board, sent homeward tae think again.