This article originally appeared on the Scottish Rugby Blog ahead of the Calcutta Cup clash between Scotland and England. If you would like a similar article for your website, please let us know and we can provide! Enjoy.
Scotland take on England next weekend in an eagerly awaited Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh. For the Scots, this must be viewed as an ominous, yet tempting, prospect. Ominous because England are the twice reigning Six Nations Champions, have won 25 of their last 26 games (26 from 27 if you count the Barbarians match last May), and their last eight matches against the Scots. This run has seen them rise from seventh in the World Rankings at the end of the last World Cup to second, behind only the mighty All Blacks.
However, the bigger they are, the harder they fall and for Scotland, the chance to get one back against the Auld Enemy in this, the oldest of fixtures and rivalries must be a tempting prospect indeed. (Scotland v England was the first international rugby fixture ever played – 27 March 1871 with the Scots winning by one goal to nil.)
Have England become too big for their boots? Does Eddie Jones need taking down a peg or two? For Scots these will be easy questions to answer.
However, statistically at least, Scotland have a real mountain to climb. Make no mistake about it, rankings-wise (and there would be few who could argue sensibly otherwise), this is the best England side since the World Cup winning side of 2003.
Back in 2003, after beating Australia in Australia to lift the Web Ellis trophy, England topped out on 93.99 ranking points and (briefly) overtook New Zealand as the world’s best side. Under Eddie Jones, and since their disastrous home World Cup performance in 2015, England have climbed from slightly below 80 ranking points to their current position of 90.87, behind only the All Blacks on, coincidentally, 93.99.
[Aside: Interestingly, the first game post 2015 World Cup for both sides was in fact Scotland v England at Murrayfield. Had the Scots won this game, they would have overtaken England in the official World Rugby Rankings (which date back to 2003) for the first time ever. However we can add, having recalculated the complete rankings going back to that first game in 1871, it would have been the first time Scotland ranked above England since 1990.]
However, as can be seen above, this is also the best Scotland side for quite some time. As we wrote about here, this was best Scotland side that we had ever seen going into the Six Nations and, rankings wise, the highest Scotland have been since around 1991. Despite suffering a severe knock to their confidence in the first match against Wales, the Scots have certainly got something tangible behind their recent rise as a rugby power. So can they overturn all the statistics and stop England in their tracks?
Our model would suggest not, but it might be closer than you think. Currently our algorithm suggests that England will beat Scotland 16 – 23, with the Scots having a 32% chance of victory. One in three are odds that most Scots would probably accept heading into this fixture, and it might be enough to worry some of the English.
Our model works by looking at historical scoring patterns in matches (both generally and specifically in head to heads), the current rankings and location to work out an expected score for both sides. More accurately speaking, this means each predicted score is actually a metric to describe the relative historical strength of the two teams, based on their performances over previous years. However, we think it is more fun to think of them as predictions. At the very least, it certainly serves to provoke the trolls lurking on Twitter. [Shameless plug – follow us on Twitter here.]
Specifically, with respect to this match, the model works as follows:
These averages, combined with the current ranking, Scotland’s home advantage (deemed by World Rugby to be worth three extra ranking points) and a bit of whizzy magic in our supercomputer gives the predicted result, 16 – 23 to England.
I’m afraid we can’t provide any insight into why this fixture is usually as low scoring as it is. Perhaps the occasion, rivalry and desire to win lead to improved defences, or perhaps it is just the weather in February. Regardless, what can be read from the above is that, almost without exception, the team that scores more than 14 points will win the match. Two converted tries may not seem like much, but in a fixture that has averaged just 0.9 tries per team per game, it might just be enough.
Now of course, having said this, we fully expect this fixture to become a regular 50-point belter, with both sides scoring at least eight tries each. It is the statistician’s curse. Given the two sides recent try scoring prowess, there is good reason to believe that this game may be rather higher scoring than usual (indeed, this is why 16 – 23 is the predicted score, rather than the usual 9 – 14).
Well, sadly our model doesn’t give any guaranteed tips. However, as already mentioned, what can be gleaned is that this is a historically low scoring affair, with the winning margin usually around five points. If this game progresses according to form, and Scotland can take their chances, then this game will likely be theirs for the taking. They could also do worse than learn from how Wales challenged England at Twickenham last weekend, restricting their points with excellent defence and giving away just 2 penalties.
For Scotland a predicted seven point margin will not seem insurmountable, and they will be confident that that can be overturned on the 24th February.
What will give the Scots further hope is their recent record at home. Since the beginning of 2016, around the same time as England’s run began, they have lost just three home games – to England, Australia and New Zealand – by an average of only four points. In that time, they have beaten Ireland, Wales, France twice and Australia, scoring tries with abandon and racking up scores that we have rarely seen from Scottish sides in the last 20 years. Murrayfield is now an undeniably difficult place to travel to.
For those who point to Scotland’s debacle against Wales as evidence that they are not quite what they are built up to be, we would largely agree, but with a caveat. Scotland are probably unfairly built up by the media (as we pointed out here) but these horror performances (against England in Six Nations 2017, Fiji in Summer 2017, and Wales in Six Nations 2018) were all played away from home. The difference between Scotland’s home and away record is unfortunately bleak and something that Scotland will need to overcome if they are to genuinely challenge for Six Nations titles in years to come.
So, for the moment and until such a time arrives, Scotland will have to focus on winning their home games. For the fans these can be approached with optimism and Scotland will currently head into all of them, regardless of the opposition, with a not insignificant chance of winning.
Of course, come kick-off, most stats will fly out the window. Both England and Scotland could easily win by 20 points, and our prediction of a relatively tight, tense encounter would look foolish. But for now in the build up, let us concentrate on the stats. For in them, for Scotland fans, there is undisputed promise and they can relish the prospect that their home matches bring.
Especially those played against Auld rivals.