England 23 Scotland 29
Steve Borthwick has only been in charge of England for one game but he already knows what a maddening job coaching can be at this level. One minute England were heading towards a morale-boosting victory in front of a reinvigorated home crowd, the next they were looking on as Scotland gleefully celebrated a hat-trick of Calcutta Cup wins for the first time since 1972 to leave the hosts contemplating another season of potential Six Nations angst.
Borthwick and his players must have thought they were in the box seat when they led 23-19 with 15 minutes remaining. Instead there was a tartan twist as Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe finished off a flowing counterattack in the left corner to decide a contest that had see-sawed all afternoon. If it was rough justice on Max Malins, scorer of two sharp tries, and the tireless Ollie Chessum it was an outcome that had already threatened to materialise at various moments on a still, grey evening.
For Scotland’s new captain, Jamie Ritchie, hoisting the world’s oldest rugby trophy aloft will encourage him and his team to believe they can have a real go at this year’s championship. Borthwick’s England, though, were left to dine on a few crumbs of comfort. At least there was a renewed energy and desire from the home team, both increasingly conspicuous by their absence towards the end of the autumn.
A penny for a certain former coach’s thoughts back in Australia. Eddie Jones would have definitely approved of England’s clear initial game plan: get Finn Russell. Lewis Ludlam was clearly under orders to chase down the conjuror from Racing 92, with Ellis Genge also given licence to run hard and straight at the visiting defence. Freddie Steward bounced off the muscular Sione Tuipulotu early on, which is no mean feat, and Scotland’s best moments early on did not yield any tangible return.
Russell, though, is a tricky matador to subdue indefinitely. First the fly-half put the straight-running Jones into a massive hole which led to England’s scrambling defence conceding a penalty advantage. With a free play available, Tuipulotu rolled a chip into the in-goal area and his Glasgow team-mate Huw Jones gleefully did the rest.
At 7-0 down after quarter of an hour England badly needed a reaction. Resilience among the super strengths of their new defence coach, Kevin Sinfield, and here was a situation which demanded plenty of it. The reshuffled coaching panel will have been suitably relieved when England built a little pressure at the other end and Marcus Smith’s cross-kick was splendidly gathered by an unmarked Malins.
All this good work, however, was about to be undone. If there did not seem much obvious danger when Van der Merwe received the ball inside his own half in the middle of the field, the picture was about to change radically. The South African-reared wing burst through the first attempted tackle and left three more Englishmen in his wake before Alex Dombrandt appeared in his eye line. The No 8′s challenge was too high and the strong-running Van der Merwe duly completed a stunning 55-metre score.
Russell’s conversion attempt bounced back off the left upright but Scotland held a more than useful 12-5 lead three minutes before the interval. It was a major frustration for the visitors, then, when England again identified some space on their right flank and the energetic Ludlam put Malins over for his second try.
Owen Farrell, though, missed his second successive conversion and there was an ironic cheer from the stands when the England captain kicked a straightforward penalty to put his side 13-12 up at the interval. If it felt slightly against the run of play, there was no questioning the hosts’ desire to play when they had the chance. It felt not unlike watching Harlequins across the road, all the more so since Nick Evans has recently crossed the A316 to take charge of England’s attack.
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The territory stats at half-time were also encouraging from England’s perspective. They had enjoyed the better of the kicking battle and 68% of the game had taken place in Scotland’s half. Close to the opposition line they also ask some forceful physical questions and, eight minutes into the second half, there was no stopping the determined Genge from a couple of metres out.
Not so long ago Scotland overcame a 31-0 deficit to secure a 38-38 draw at this same venue, but 20-12 down to opponents clearly growing in belief was not an auspicious platform. What a bonus it was, then, when the ball squirted out from the back of a Scottish ruck a couple of minutes later and London Irish’s Ben White reacted quickest to swivel and run 20 metres to score, with Russell safely converting this time.
Suddenly it was a one-point ball game again with Scotland looking the livelier of the two sides. Had Van der Merwe clung on to an inside ball from a flying Stuart Hogg a fourth Scottish try might well have followed, but England’s front row reinforcements seemed to be exerting rather more pressure than their counterparts as the game entered its closing stages. Everyone reckoned without the final blue surge which started life in Scotland’s own half and ended with Van der Merwe crashing over in the left corner. Russell had previously had a mixed day with the boot but this time there was no mistake whatsoever. Cue yet another rhapsody in blue.
England: Steward, Malins, Marchant, Farrell, Hassell-Collins, M. Smith, van Poortvliet, Genge, George, Sinckler, Itoje, Chessum, Ludlam, Curry, Dombrandt. Replacements: Lawrence for Marchant (75), Watson for Hassell-Collins (64), Youngs for van Poortvliet (57), Vunipola for Genge (60), Cole for Sinckler (60), Isiekwe for Curry (60), Earl for Dombrandt (56).
Scotland: Hogg, Steyn, Jones, Tuipulotu, Van Der Merwe, Russell, White, Schoeman, Turner, Nel, R. Gray, Gilchrist, Ritchie, Crosbie, M. Fagerson. Replacements: Kinghorn for Hogg (65), Harris for Jones (75), Horne for White (69), J. Gray for Schoeman (65), Brown for Turner (58), Berghan for Nel (58), Dempsey for Crosbie (58).
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)