Let’s start with the good news.
Scotland, a disorganised and calamity-prone shambles against Tonga in November, rejoined the international community with a display that was impressive in parts, effective in critical areas and well organised throughout.
And the bad news? They were up against England. New England. England on fire.
Frankly, few sides on Earth could have lived with the English yesterday. Their performance was short of flawless, but they were clinical, ferocious in contact and precise in almost everything they did. They also had composure when they creaked, and never allowed adversity to get to them.
For Scotland, the major pluses were that Stuart Hogg delivered a performance that may have put him straight into the Lions party, Johnnie Beattie made a solid return and Sean Maitland justified his billing in his first international start. But they were wanting in other areas, too, especially at fly-half, where Ruaridh Jackson still looked short of international class, and in the second row, where Jim Hamilton was largely anonymous.
England began as they finished against New Zealand two months ago – rumbling the ball upfield through the forwards and spinning it wide when they hit the killing zone. Scotland were heading for the lifeboat stations even then, and England’s composure and confidence were only heightened when Owen Farrell clipped over an early penalty.
Scotland were virtual spectators at that stage, but when the ball finally did come their way they used it brilliantly. Full-back Hogg collected a decent kick near the Scots’ 10m line, fooled two advancing English defenders that he was shaping to kick it back then raced between them with a marvellously impetuous burst. Hogg was stopped, but the momentum of the move was maintained. After a couple of forays to the left, the ball was worked back towards the right corner, where Ryan Grant made a few more inches. England defended the ensuing ruck poorly, and Maitland took a popped pass from Greig Laidlaw and dived over the line.
Heartening stuff for the Scots in the crowd who had been silenced by what they had seen up to that point, but the overall pattern did not alter greatly. Still, England churned forward and Scotland seemed to be at full stretch to keep them bay. Inevitably, the line was overstepped, and Farrell took England to 9-5 with a couple of penalties coughed up by Scottish desperation.
By half time, that had moved along to 19-11. Laidlaw had cut the deficit with a 21st-minute penalty, but the waves of English pressure were always likely to be rewarded. The moment came on the half hour, with a series of rucks and off-loads – set up after Farrell had charged a kick by Jackson – taking play into the shadow of the Scottish posts.
The last few yards were won by Joe Launchbury, the strapping lock, and a quick pass from scrum-half Ben Youngs allowed Chris Ashton to dive over. Towards the end of the half, Farrell and Laidlaw exchanged penalties to bring up a scoreline that was a pretty fair reflection of proceedings up to that point.
The scoreboard still offered hope to Scotland. So, too, had some notable individual forays by Beattie and Tim Visser, and the all-round excellence of Hogg. But those hopes were extinguished just two minutes after the re-start when another fine passage of continuity took play up the Scottish line, where another beautifully timed pass from Ben Youngs found Billy Twelvetrees, whose pace over the line suggested he had spent the interval gargling on rocket fuel.
As a contest, that was it. But England cranked up the pressure, with measured brutality. Ten minutes after the Twelvetrees try, they piled on more agony for Scotland when they levered Launchbury over for what would have been their third try. Would have been, that is, had one of the touch judges not spotted a high tackle by Tom Youngs, the England hooker. The score was chalked off and Scotland were given a penalty.
Relief was short-lived. A couple of minutes later, Ben Youngs scampered into the Scotland 22, the ball was shipped cleanly and quickly to the left, and Parling hammered out the last few yards for his try.
The floodgates had opened and Scotland were soaked to the skin. But my, how they rallied. Granted, Scotland have a habit of lighting up games they have long since lost, but they did so here with a rare try of uplifting excellence. It began with Kelly Brown snaffling a superb turnover near Scotland’s line and was carried on by Dave Denton. Maitland made some more yards before kicking upfield and Hogg, so fittingly, hacked on again and won the race for the score.
Frankly, it would have been absurd for Scotland to have the last word in a game that had been dominated by English power and accuracy. So Danny Care, the replacement scrum-half, finished off with a try for England and Farrell added the final conversion.
Scotland might console themselves with the thought that they won respect again. But winning matches against this England takes another level altogether.
Official Match Statistics
|5 (1)||Scrums won (lost)||5 (2)|
|11 (2)||Line-outs won (lost)||9 (2)|
|90 (11)||Tackles made (missed)||128 (19)|