By James Beringer
At last, after lulling England into a false sense of security over the past 10 years, Scotland finally decided to stop letting them win and reclaimed the Calcutta Cup.
This was a magnificent performance that was superbly executed. It was also a small act of defiance against the prevailing wisdom of the rugby press. Of course, everyone said, it’ll come down to that match against England and Ireland on the 17th. Everyone knew that – even Chris Ashton.
After a horrendous opening loss to Wales followed by a gritty win against France, Scotland did not seem to be capable of realistically challenging this England team. Yet despite all the odds, Scotland, at last, proved they have the ability to challenge the very best, and have been duly rewarded for their efforts.
Across the park, from McInally at hooker to Russell at fly-half, to Jones at centre, every Scottish player turned up. England on the other hand, despite all their talk of meticulous preparation, looked confused and stunned. Eddie Jones’ side have become so used to dictating games and suffocating their opposition (case in point: the match against Wales two weeks ago) that they seemed ill-equipped to deal with a side intent on playing a high-tempo game from the beginning. By the time they had recovered their bearings at half-time, the Scots were too far away.
So now we get to enjoy the English press go into overdrive about how the imminent demise of the England team is upon us, how Eddie Jones is clearly a fraud and how the RFU should have seen that before hiring him, how the fabric of British society is going to descend into brutal anarchy, how this is clearly a sign of the end times, and how the Second Coming is now upon us – you know, typical rugby talk.
In reality, England are in such terrible form that this is only the second time that England have lost since the end of the 2015 World Cup. That’s a better record than the All Blacks – but clearly that’s an inappropriate yardstick for the England team. Does anyone remember when Andy Robinson was head coach in 2006 and England lost seven games in a row?
What happened to England on Saturday is exactly what happened to Ireland and Wales when they went to Murrayfield last year – they fell victim to Scotland’s Jekyll and Hyde problem (a particularly appropriate analogy considering the book is written by a Scotsman). At Murrayfield, Scotland are full of passion, produce incredible attacking rugby, and possess a determination to never give up (see for example last year’s match against New Zealand).
For some inexplicable reason, however, Scotland seem to lose all rugby ability the moment they cross the border. This leads to quite embarrassing score lines (61-21, 34-7 – that kind of thing) or bizarre freak incidents (the ball falling over during Finn Russell’s conversion attempt against France last year).
The other teams in the tournament seem to exclusively believe that the latter is the only Scotland. They arrive in Edinburgh believing that the game will be the formality it so often seems to be in London, Dublin or Paris and then seem completely perplexed when Scotland, buoyed on by the passionate crowd, produce a high tempo game right from the beginning.
England were simply undone by a team that played better on the day. There’s no shame in that and it doesn’t in any way signal that England have been “found out” or “gone stale”. In the long run this may be beneficial to England, who will reflect on the loss and ultimately come back stronger. The point is that no team can win indefinitely, it just isn’t possible, and you’re simply deluded if you think this is not the case for any team in any sport.
This is not to say that England are without problems. There were clearly issues with England’s performance that will surely be worked on over the next two weeks. The most glaring of all are the problems in the backrow, where England simply do not have a specialist 7. At best they might have two 6s and an 8, but they lack the kind of player that will be a nuisance in the ruck.
This was made glaringly obvious when confronted with Ross Barclay and Hamish Watson, who were in superb form, especially in the first half. They secured crucial turnovers throughout, but more importantly they slowed the game down whenever England looked to build an attack. This gave Scotland the necessary time to organise their defensive lines, which effectively nullified England’s threat out wide. Courtney Lawes and Chris Robshaw, while fine players, lack this ability, and were clearly outclassed on the day. This is a problem that England have had since Neil Back retired, and it seems so odd that in a country with more rugby players than any other, a specialist openside flanker cannot be found.
At number 8, England were very much missing the presence of Billy Vunipola (and to be honest that of Sam Simmonds as well). England can get away with the two 6s and an 8 combination when Vunipola is playing because the skills he provides often negate the need for the more complicated skills at the breakdown. Vunipola is so powerful that, at the very least, two or three opposing players are required simply to bring him down when he gets the ball.
By the time he hits the floor, he has often worked himself into a position where he can neatly release the ball to whoever is playing at scrum-half. Robshaw and Lawes are tireless workhorses, but they aren’t ball carriers in the Vunipola mould. Hughes is a capable replacement but obviously has just returned from injury, and this will surely be the key area for Eddie Jones to work on through the week.
England were also shockingly ill-disciplined. Courtney Lawes was the biggest culprit alongside Joe Launchberry, the pair of whom were responsible for half of the 13 penalties conceded by England. Crucially, these penalties came at key moments. Launchberry was of course penalised in the lead up to Danny Care’s break – which may have resulted in a try. Nigel Owens has come under pressure for that decision but it clearly was the right call. Meanwhile, Lawes conceded the crucial penalty in the closing moments of the game when England were so close to crossing the Scottish line.
So, where do Scotland and England go from here? Literally, they’ll be going to Dublin and Paris, but each will have different challenges and issues to tackle.
For England, the goal will be to quiet the English press and their ridiculous crusade against the team. It seems unlikely that England will produce the same type of performance twice in a row. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that England come out guns blazing and really batter France. For all the talk of French flair (which really hasn’t been a thing for at least 10 years now) France play a game revolving more around physicality than Scotland, and this may suit England better.
Scotland will need to prove that they have the ability to win, or at the very least compete decently, in games away from home. Ireland, who are now in the driving seat and could realistically win the championship after the next round, will present a stern task, but Scotland will take heart from the fact that they successfully defeated the Irish last time around at Murrayfield, and that their last trips to the Aviva have been at the very least encouraging.
The point is that Scotland cannot rest on this victory for too long and cannot let the hype get to their heads. The last time that happened, following their demolition of Australia last November, they got destroyed by a rampant Welsh side who seemed to have an axe to grind. If Townsend and co can successfully use this victory as a springboard, they may need to make space for that Calcutta Cup in their trophy cabinet more often.
Photograph: www.davidmolloyphotography.com via Wikimedia Commons