English vanities mauled by tactically astute Scotland
Efficient England discover inspiration, artistry and passion trump the grinding game
Scotland’s Huw Jones runs in to score his side’s first try against England in their Six Nations match at Murrayfield Stadium, in Edinburgh. Photograph: Reuters
Every now and again comes a reminder of why the Six Nations still exerts a powerful hold on the imagination. Out of a clear blue Edinburgh sky has also come a scoreline which has transformed this season’s championship and given England a lot to contemplate. It is now entirely possible a third straight title will already have evaporated before Ireland visit Twickenham on the tournament’s closing Saturday.
Above all else, though, this was a glorious weekend for Scotland and those who like seeing positivity and calculated risk rewarded at the higher end of professional sport. One defeat does not necessarily make England a bad team overnight but it was the manner of it that felt most significant. Efficiency, hard work and repetition can take a team so far but sometimes inspiration, artistry and passion count for even more.
This was no scrappy Calcutta Cup mugging but a meticulously planned and coolly executed assassination of English vanities. Scotland have had some stirring days in defeat to New Zealand and Australia in recent seasons, but rarely have they delivered such a complete 80-minute performance. Finn Russell and his back row gave their opposite numbers the kind of run-around no one involved will forget in a hurry.
For the Scots it also completed one of the great turnarounds in any team sport in recent times. This time last year they were losing 61-21; a 52-point victorious swing inside 12 months is a Six Nations record. Less than a month ago Gregor Townsend’s players were reeling in the wake of a 34-7 walloping in Wales; if Scotland were to go on and lift the title after that wretched start, it really would rank among the great championship fables.
Such an outcome would require successive away wins in Dublin and Rome and favourable results elsewhere but either way Townsend and his proactive team have taught Eddie Jones’s England a valuable lesson. Just last week Jones was dismissing the notion of speculative distribution – “If you want entertainment go and watch Super Rugby” – at this level, only to be confronted by Russell doing a passable impression of Carlos Spencer and Quade Cooper combined.
Maybe on another day the long passes that outflanked the narrow English defence and gave Huw Jones such a licence to thrill would have fallen into enemy hands but Russell deserves massive credit for backing himself despite a personally rocky start to this Six Nations.
There was absolutely nothing fortuitous, however, about Scotland’s breakdown dominance, with John Barclay and Hamish Watson once again raising doubts over England’s effectiveness in that critical area.
With Ryan Wilson more than happy to mix it physically with the visitors’ big ball carriers and England reduced to second best almost everywhere, the upshot was Scotland’s most comprehensive triumph in this fixture for over 30 years. “It wasn’t just their back row; it was players across the XV,” said Chris Robshaw. “It was frustrating because we’d spoken so much about the breakdown. For whatever reason we didn’t come with that intensity and physicality we had spoken about.”
Good as Townsend’s men were tactically and temperamentally, England under Jones have never conceded as many points before half-time. They also seem to have a recurring problem in away fixtures featuring extended pre-match formalities but blaming Princess Anne or the Irish Taoiseach would be facile. In this instance it is reasonable to ask if England’s intense physical preparations ultimately backfired. Tough extra scrummaging sessions against Georgia become less useful if they drain the team of vitality when it counts.
England also have to ask themselves whether they have the optimal back-row balance, whether to stick with all their senior “glue” players and whether they might have to widen their horizons beyond grinding down opponents and pulling away in the final quarter. They continue to concede too many penalties and, on this evidence, even France may sense an opportunity to resuscitate their season. “We’ve got to take our medicine and learn,” said Robshaw. “Well done to them but we’re not out of this competition and we’ll keep on fighting.”
‘Surge for the line’
A failure to return south with so much as a losing bonus point, however, means Ireland could wrap the title up a week early should they score a convincing four-try win over Scotland and England not do likewise at the Stade de France.
Scotland’s dismal Six Nations away record – only two away wins since 2000 other than in Rome – will also have to be confounded, though in Jones they have found a natural try-scorer. “I was thinking: ‘I haven’t really got a step so I’ve got to go straight here,” said the 24-year-old, modestly discussing his direct surge to the line for his second try. “I didn’t really fancy it to be honest. When you think of England you think of their defence. That brick wall . . . it’s almost impenetrable at times.”
Not on this occasion. Jones’s coaching namesake warned against looking for non-existent “shadows in the corners” but one or two clouds are starting to gather on England’s horizon. Their grand slam hopes have been abruptly extinguished and, as far as their rivals are concerned, any sense of invincibility has also disappeared.
Scorers – Scotland: Tries: H. Jones 2, Maitland. Cons: Laidlaw 2. Pens: Laidlaw, Russell. England: Tries: Farrell. Cons: Farrell. Pens: Farrell 2
SCOTLAND: Hogg, Seymour, H. Jones, Horne, Maitland, Russell, Laidlaw, Reid, McInally, Berghan, Gilchrist, J. Gray, Barclay, Watson, Wilson. Replacements: Kinghorn for Seymour (65), Grigg for Horne (72), Price for Laidlaw (63), Bhattie for Reid (58), Nel for Berghan (69), Swinson for Gilchrist (56), Denton for Wilson (69). Not Used: Lawson.
England: Brown, Watson, Joseph, Farrell, May, Ford, Care, Vunipola, Hartley, Cole, Launchbury, Itoje, Lawes, Robshaw, Huges. Replacements: Nowell for Brown (56), Te’o for Ford (65), Wigglesworth for Care (72), Marler for Vunipola (69), George for Hartley (56), Williams for Cole (65), Kruis for Launchbury (72), Underhill for Huges (55). Sin Bin: Underhill (66).
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).