RESPECT to the lawn bowlers, netball girls and small-bore guys soon to compete in an inter-Britain manner at Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, but this was the last, ultra-significant Us vs Them clash before, you know, The Big One.
In September on Referendum Day, Scotland in effect goes into a cup final against itself. That promises to be a contest of almost unbearable tension, destiny in our own hands etc, and the outcome could alter for evermore our special relationship with the prancing rugger whiteshirts and their lusty-voiced followers in the stands.
Alex Salmond wouldn’t call too many in last night’s home support – those good and grumpy men of the New Town, of Ravelston Dykes and of perjink, pruned-and-mown East Lothian – his first-choice dead-certs for the Yes votes he’ll require.
But maybe the First Minister doesn’t know quite how grumpy these people are for a Scottish victory. So starved have they been up in the debenture seats that, as Scotland toiled, as Jim Hamilton heaved and as David Denton wound up for a charge, you reckoned the Don’t Knows might have been willing to cut a desperate deal: “OK, Eck, we’ll back you in this independence malarkey – just give us a bloody Scottish try.” Crivvens, maybe even the Devoutly No camp would have gone for that.
Where was the rain? We were promised rain. And wind. These were, almost inevitably, our secret weapons. A squally, sodden, spoiled affair might give us a wee chance. Not the kind of rain capable of washing away Cornish railtracks or bring down trees – just enough to stop Billy Twelvetrees. Well, Flower of Scotland was stirring at least, especially the gaun-yersel second verse, when the pipers stopped skirling.
And the other first-half highlights? An Owen Farrell fumble, cheered gleefully, then Farrell again mucking up a straighforward-ish penalty, cursing the turf like a mis-firing David Beckham. Maybe the underfoot conditions, with those bugs rampant, would come to our aid after all. The turf in places looked beyond even the aid of an Austin Healey-approved hair-weave, but then England’s new scrum-half, dangerous box-of-tricks Danny Care, slotted over a drop-goal and the game started to take on a familiar complexion.
The number of times a Scot in possession was shunted back five yards was dispiriting indeed. Greig Laidlaw’s penalties, fluttering past the left-hand post, hardly helped the spirits. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was duly booed, then answered with shouts of “Scotland, Scotland” but these sounded more like groans, mildly desperate ones. For the latter stages of the half, England were virtually camped in Scotland’s 22. A heroic effort to prevent a score under the posts right on the whistle almost simulated the experience of a Scottish try. Almost, but nothing like.
But the second half got off to a fantastic start when a Scottish lineout actually worked. Ironic cheers. Then some long punting actually worked. Then during a stoppage a horrible electrified version of Loch Lomond roused the home supporters. And then England scored another try.
In the build-up to the game, England coach Stuart Lancaster told his players to use their disappointment over the last-gasp defeat by France, take their “hurt and crossness” on to the field in Edinburgh. Matt Dawson urged them to get ruthless like the All Blacks or any team drilled by Sir Alex Ferguson. They seemed to do all these things last night, and we were left trying to remember some of the Scottish boasts from earlier in the week. “This England are there for the taking,” was one of them. Not by this Scotland they’re not.
In Paris, Lancaster made substitutions which were much criticised, especially that of Care, he of the Peaky Blinders barnet. The changes made last night made no difference to England’s grinding effectiveness, though they might wonder how they didn’t score more than just the 20 points.
Farrell continued to irk the Scottish fans – he’s just got one of those faces – but this wasn’t enough to stop a kind of boredom setting in. So much so that, when a bare-chested kiltie ran on to the pitch, his outrunning of the stewards was loudly cheered while another England attack, this one reaching the try-line, went virtually unnoticed. (Some neat sidesteps, too – sign him up).
Last week, David Cameron was talking up the Union but from the safety of London, from the Olympic Stadium, sooking from a 2012 water-bottle, using sport as a prop for patriotism. But that’s politics for you. A game, in Alex Salmond’s words, for fearties.
Lancaster’s England ventured all the way up to Edinburgh, intent on making Scotland suffer for their Parisian coq-up. They weren’t fearties; they came and did their ruthless job. No tries for Scotland, no points either. They couldn’t even get near the winger with the broken nose.