• John Mitchell predicts Super Saturday of ‘chaos’
• Harlequins’ Marcus Smith a surprise inclusion in squad
England have responded to Warren Gatland’s stinging criticism that they are big-match chokers by ramping up the pressure on Wales, who bid for the Six Nations grand slam on Saturday.
Wales will seal a third grand slam under Gatland on Saturday if they beat Ireland in Cardiff but defeat would open the door for England to clinch the title with victory over Scotland. England’s defence coach, John Mitchell, is predicting “chaos” when Super Saturday culminates at Twickenham while Billy Vunipola conceded the defeat by Wales in round three, which ended their own hopes of the grand slam, will be “niggling away” this week.
After that defeat Gatland claimed that “when it’s really mattered, I’ve questioned whether [England] can win these big games”. But asked about the pressure that comes with going for a grand slam, Mitchell said: “Sometimes if you get distracted by external focuses it becomes mentally draining and take the energy away from you, which is most important when you’re in a game that’s going to be as absorbing as it will be. The way to embrace it is to get excited by it rather than see it as a mental burden.”
Vunipola, who has tasted both victory and defeat in pursuit of a grand slam on the final day of the Six Nations, against France in 2016 and Ireland in 2017 respectively, added: “I remember playing in that game against France and we were almost a little bit scared. That’s understandable because there’s so much pressure on you to produce.”
Maro Itoje will not feature for England against Scotland after he was sent back to Saracens due to his knee injury, ending his Six Nations campaign, but Eddie Jones did include Harlequins’ Marcus Smith in his 31-man squad on Monday. Mitchell, however, admitted he did not “fully understand” Jones’s decision to call him up for the first time this season and revealed Smith is not in contention to face Scotland.
Mitchell also expressed serious doubts over whether the 20-year-old would be ready for the World Cup if Owen Farrell or George Ford were to go down injured, keeping the door ajar for Danny Cipriani, who masterminded Gloucester’s win over Harlequins on Sunday but has not featured in an England squad since August.
“[Marcus’s selection has] nothing to do with pecking order,” said Mitchell. “To be totally fair I don’t fully understand [it]. At the end of the day the boss [Jones] sees that it’s the right time to bring him in. To put Marcus, a young man, into [the World Cup squad] on his own is something we’d have to discuss seriously as a coaching group. We’d have to look at all the players in the country in that [position] and make sure we create the best mix.”
Scotland have not beaten England at Twickenham since 1983 and their chances of doing so suffered a blow on Monday when Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Blair Kinghorn were all ruled out, compounding Gregor Townsend’s injury problems. Mitchell however, is expecting a fast and furious Calcutta Cup clash. “A lot of this game will be hugely chaotic and frenetic,” he said. “This will be like some of the toughest Test matches we’ve played in the last year.”