Scotland’s clarity of thought shows the way for confused England

Clear game plan comes up trumps in contrast to England who hauled off Marcus Smith

Just one weekend in and the Six Nations is already stirring powerful emotions. In Scotland, with the Calcutta Cup under lock and key once again, there is renewed optimism and pride after the significant outcome on Saturday. And in England? To say Eddie Jones and his squad headed homewards with much to ponder is a familiar understatement.

Even given the tricky conditions at Murrayfield, the visitors' 20-17 defeat will be a source of acute and prolonged frustration. Apart from anything else, a couple of uneasy trends are emerging. For the third successive year any faint grand slam hopes have vanished within 80 minutes and, for the fourth time in five seasons, Jones has been unable to outflank Scotland's head coach Gregor Townsend.

If England are going to conquer the world next year, they could do a lot worse than take several leaves from Scotland's book. Did Townsend whip off his outhalf Finn Russell at the start of the final quarter with his team trailing 17-10? Of course he didn't. The Scots had a clear plan, stayed calm, trusted in their playmaker's ability and, ultimately, reaped the rewards for doing so.

And England? The flawed decision to remove Marcus Smith from the fray neatly symbolised the split personality that remains a feature of Jones' regime. The young outhalf had done pretty much everything asked of him and put England in front with the kind of smart, excellently taken try that separates a high-class outhalf from a moderate one.

But then – boom – he was gone. Rather than being trusted to finish the job off, he was sitting idle in the stand. It felt very much like a conservative move and, even worse, a premeditated one. Had the game been at Twickenham, the boos of English supporters would have rung loudly around the stadium. As it was, English momentum and composure largely disappeared with him.

Of course there were other unrelated factors involved. Maybe England did not always enjoy the rub of the green. Russell definitely deserved credit for the two inch-perfect punts that ended up stretching the red rose defence to breaking point. And it was a team decision, in the end, to go for that fateful late lineout rather than the penalty kick at goal that might have yielded a draw. The fact George Ford’s tentative punt and Sam Skinner’s steal combined to ruin the visitors’ day cannot be entirely laid at the management’s door.

Then again, maybe it is time to acknowledge that tight officiating decisions or absent friends are not the primary reason why England are still blowing hot and cold, and now stand on the verge of another awkward campaign. Their issue is not a shortage of talented individuals or enviable depth or even increasing captaincy options. They simply lack the collective clarity of thought that Scotland, and others, are currently exhibiting.

The game on Saturday was a perfect example. How did they end up with so little in the way of dynamic gainline penetration beyond the occasional thrust from their backrowers Sam Simmonds and Lewis Ludlam? How come the home side kicked so much more effectively? Was Joe Marler's lineout throwing really the way forward? And, if they were really intent on playing fast and going for it, how did that square with hauling off Smith at the game's pivotal point?

Italy in Rome this Sunday should at least offer the opportunity to smooth away some of that angst. There is no question, either, that England's rolling maul is starting to look far more effective. Two years ago they also lost their opening fixture and went on to hoist the title. It is far from impossible that they can still defeat Wales and Ireland at Twickenham and then head to Paris with much at stake next month.

In that event, Jones will be fully entitled to enjoy the moment. No one relishes the constant tactical puzzles of international rugby more than the Australian and he continues to scour the sporting world for the little tweaks that might help him solve the game’s biggest conundrums.

That said, Jones’ tenure of England increasingly feels as if it is being sponsored by Wordle: there seems to be a different problem to solve every day. No one is saying it is a simple task but surely Smith is the five-letter answer, not a question mark? The lack of consistent and absolute faith in people feels like the thing that is arguably disrupting England the most.

Either way, enough assistant coaches and support staff have already come and gone for this to be a crucial period for the Jones project. The constant changes of tack – both stylistic and selectorially – are in sharp contrast with the largely settled environments of their main rivals and time is no longer on the management's side. For all the talk of England's youth and inexperience, Jamie George and Marler are 31, Ben Youngs will be 34 next year and Manu Tuilagi, forever the longed-for saviour, turns 31 in May. Owen Farrell was 30 last September and Jonny May will be 32 in April. Kyle Sinckler, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly will all be on the wrong side of 30 by the 2023 World Cup.

For now, though, Jones's priorities are simple enough. Put an arm around Luke Cowan-Dickie, ensure the Exeter hooker is not put in such an invidious defensive position again, quietly apologise to Smith and instruct his players to take out their irritation on Italy. Marler, Jack Nowell, Alex Dombrandt and Harry Randall will all be hoping for a start in Rome and it already feels as if this Six Nations season still has plenty of twists to come. England will not recall their Edinburgh weekend fondly but they remain in charge of their own destiny.

- Guardian