England's new breed are fired up and ready for Scotland
If Scotland assume they hold all the aces in terms of passion and pride going into Saturday’s Calcutta Cup showdown, the presence of Phil Dowson in the England side should disprove that notion.
Once the 30-year-old Northampton back-rower’s selection for a Test debut at Murrayfield was confirmed by Stuart Lancaster yesterday, Dowson made it plain that matching the intensity and commitment of the hosts will not be a problem.
Asked if he is primed to match the fire of the Scots in England’s RBS Six Nations opener in Edinburgh, the new No 8 said: ‘Because it has been such a long-standing ambition for me and such a struggle getting there, it’s not a massive issue for me.’
Ready for action: Stuart Lancaster has fostered a strong team ethic
Motivational speeches will not be required in Dowson’s case.
For years, he has been so near but so far from England recognition. Setting appearances records for the Saxons is not a player’s target as a c.v. entry, with its always-the-bridesmaid, never-the-bride connotations.
Dowson has captained the Saxons several times, too, as well as leading Newcastle. He has played non-cap matches for his country, earned piles of awards, man-of-the-match honours galore and endless plaudits for being among the most consistent performers in the Aviva Premiership.
Hyped: No 8 Phil Dowson won't need a motivational speech
But the ultimate tribute to his work always eluded him.
Not any more. Dowson was one of three debutants — along with Saracens centres Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt — named by Lancaster in his starting XV to face Scotland tomorrow and one of eight in the matchday squad of 22. Dowson is delighted that his dedication and perseverance has been rewarded.
‘I’ve always tried to get here but there’s always been a huge amount of talent in the back row, so it’s been tough,’ he said. ‘I’ve tried to use the experience of not being picked as motivation to get here and it’s finally paid off.
‘I want to make sure I seize that opportunity and relish it. The England coaches would always speak to me and say, “These are the strengths and weaknesses of your game and this is the pecking order”. That’s something you’ve got to deal with. The ambition was always to get here and one of the routes was the Saxons.’
Having been picked to start at No 8, Dowson admitted missing out on a place in England’s World Cup training squad last summer was a hammer blow at the time.
‘It was a huge disappointment,’ he said. ‘But the advice I was getting from family, friends and club coaches was, “Keep trying your hardest, keep knocking on the door and, hopefully, it’ll open”.’
Barritt is another newcomer who received staunch support from his club when he was repeatedly overlooked by England. The Anglo-South African centre featured against New Zealand Maori at the end of the summer tour in 2010, but further opportunities didn’t come, with the suggestion being that he didn’t fit with the emphasis on bulk and power in midfield.
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But he continued to prosper for Saracens as an integral part of their title-winning team last season, and his effective link-up with Farrell and Charlie Hodgson in this campaign clinched his place in Lancaster’s plans.
As a player with considerable experience of intimidating arenas from his time with the Durban-based Sharks in the southern hemisphere Super 14 (now 15) competition, Barritt feels equipped to handle the volatile atmosphere at Murrayfield.
‘If I were picking the most hostile venue in South Africa, it would definitely be playing in Pretoria against the Bulls,’ he said.
England v Scotland… the numbers
211 Scotland's seven substitutes have 211 caps between them, 22 fewer than the England starting XV.
26 The average age of England’s Six Nations squad, compared with last season's average of 27 years and 10 months. They also have less experience with an average of 15 caps in the starting line-up against last year's 23.
1965 The last time England tried an uncapped centre pairing from the same club was 47 years ago – Cambridge University duo Geoff Frankcom and Dave Rosser in the Five Nations opener against Wales.
4 England captains had less experience than Chris Robshaw – the uncapped Fred Stokes, Fred Alderson, Joe Mycock and Nigel Melville.
2 England players survive from Murrayfield two years ago – prop Dan Cole and hooker Dylan Hartley.
0 During his reign as England manager, Martin Johnson tried 11 centres in 13 combinations. Stuart Lancaster picks his first midfield pairing with no caps between them.
‘In European rugby I would say Clermont — which was a great atmosphere, but definitely hostile. Another one playing in the Super 14 was against the Waikato Chiefs, who had a guy in the crowd with an electric handsaw! It was a good experience and entertaining, too.
‘I expect to see some Bravehearts out on the pitch at Murrayfield. You have really just got to take it all in and soak up the atmosphere. We are expecting a hostile welcome.’
The presence of Barritt, Farrell, Hodgson and David Strettle in the England back line has led Scotland to assume the visitors will adopt a gameplan based on the structured Saracens model.
Barritt insists that won’t be the case from the outset, although it could be a fall-back option. ‘We have got a different structure from Sarries,’ he said.
‘Stuart has set a basic framework which lets the players express themselves and play attacking rugby, but we will have to adapt to whatever conditions or playing styles come our way. If it means reverting back to a more direct approach, we have that in our locker.’
New faces: England's Phil Dawson, Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt (L-R)
Barritt revealed a host of his relatives are making the journey from South Africa to see his England debut at Murrayfield. There are so many new faces in the England ranks — with Rob Webber, Geoff Parling, Ben Morgan, Lee Dickson and Jordan Turner-Hall on the bench — that there are bound to be several English families making the journey to Edinburgh.
They will travel in hope and excitement, for those are the sentiments engendered by Lancaster’s bold selection. Whether that selection is based on an ultimately nave belief in the country’s young talent, only time will tell.