EVERYONE said it. The Scotland coaching team, skipper Kelly Brown and the veterans of 1983 who landed in London for a reunion, hoping to see the 30-year wait for a fifth Scotland win at Twickenham come to an end.
Scorers: England: Tries – Ashton, Twelvetrees, Parling, Care; Pens – Farrell 4; Cons – Farrell 3; Scotland: Tries – Maitland, Hogg; Pens – Laidlaw 2; Con – Laidlaw..
“Get in their faces, contest the ball, put them under pressure and stay there for 80 minutes.” But the Scots could not achieve that and again lacked consistency in the two areas that have bedevilled them for the past year – the battle for ball and the defence. England took full advantage to score four tries, had one disallowed and, but for excellent scrambling Scottish defending in their 22, could have had two or three more.
The Scottish gameplan was simplified, allowing Kelly Brown’s side to build around half-backs Greig Laidlaw and Ruaridh Jackson with big forwards Ryan Grant, Richie Gray, Johnnie Beattie and David Denton – on early after Alasdair Strokosch suffered a broken cheekbone – taking the game to England and backs Matt Scott and Sean Lamont occupying the England midfield sufficiently to bring the potent back three of Tim Visser, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg into the spaces.
But, instead, Scotland were beaten off the ball too often at the breakdown, gave it up with mistakes and penalties, and for all the unstinting effort, at times it felt like watching blind men battering the wall of the palace, with the guards in white sniggering at the ease with which they kept them out.
There were two glorious exceptions for Scotland supporters, which underlined the threat they do possess even against a defence of the rippling intensity of England’s.
The first was a counter-attacking sprint by Stuart Hogg from deep in his own half, made stunning by Hogg’s appreciation of where space existed and English tighthead Dan Cole’s sluggishness to close a gap, and though the full-back could not release Sean Maitland initially, the Scottish team came together well in the 22 to show that they were capable of winding up pressure while retaining composure, to eventually uncork Maitland into the right-hand corner for the winger’s Test debut try.
The second moment that brought Scots to their feet again revolved around Hogg. From a turnover underneath the Scottish posts, Jackson, who offered another mixed performance, released the back line and urged them to attack wide. Maitland sent an excellent kick downfield and Hogg took off after it as if jet-propelled. Those who believe the addition of a stone in weight on the 20-year-old has slowed him were made to eat those words, as he beat Maitland to the bouncing ball, showed terrific skill and composure to kick it to the English line and beat the defensive cover to it.
Sadly for Scotland, where the first try had come just before the ten-minute mark, pulling the Scots back into the fight, and cutting the lead to 6-5, by the time the second score was fashioned, it was of the consolation type that even brought applause from English fans, so far ahead were they at 31-18 even after Laidlaw had superbly converted Hogg’s score from the right touchline.
After the first try and the briefly raised hopes of the visitors, Lamont was penalised in a ruck and Owen Farrell stepped up to convert the second of his seven successful kicks at goal. Denton then replaced Strokosch and threw a wild pass over Jackson’s head which led to another Farrell penalty, though to be fair to the flanker he duly earned a penalty at the other end with his work at a ruck and Laidlaw cut the deficit again to 9-8 after 20 minutes.
But that was the way the game was to go. Flutters of Scottish promise running aground too easily, mistakes and ill-discipline – albeit with some bizarre calls by Irish referee Alain Rolland – handing England opportunities to build a lead and, unforgivably, Scotland’s defence sitting back off England and inviting them to attack.
That may sound ridiculous, but it was what we witnessed too often in this contest: the blue line a little straggly or just five metres back from where it should be. One could see Farrell stepping into it, realising there was no smash coming and duly stepping again, sizing up his options and delivering, invariably, a pass that would send a team-mate hurtling into Scottish bodies with the momentum of a wrecking ball.
Jackson had some good moments on the ball, but mistakes are brutally exposed at this level and he had some of those too. He sliced an early penalty to touch and was charged down by Farrell, his half-back partner Laidlaw also culpable with a kick straight to touch, which gifted England the territory to fashion a Chris Ashton try on the half-hour that took the hosts into a 16-8 lead.
Johnnie Beattie had one great run to mark his Test return, showing some Montpellier daring with the ball in one hand, which had allowed Laidlaw to pull the scores back to 19-11 at half-time, but a Scottish penalty from the second half restart invited another siege on the visitors’ line and for all the terrific determination and Scots bodies being sacrificed, there was still an inevitability about how Billy Twelvetrees marked his England debut with a terrific running line that left Dougie Hall with no chance of denying the bull-like centre from three metres.
Young lock Joe Launchbury was denied a try because his hooker Tom Youngs was strangling Denton on the floor when he went over, but Geoff Parling took an exquisite floated pass over two defenders from Farrell to ensure a second row score that effectively killed the contest long before Danny Care’s last-minute score.
England were far from perfect, with handling errors and indiscipline at tackle-time costing them opportunities too. Great Scottish defence had to be applauded, with skipper Kelly Brown striving to provide a lead against the powerful English back three of Chris Robshaw, Ben Morgan in the first half and James Haskell in the second and Tom Wood, and sometimes succeeding.
But, and this is where the Scottish team need to stand up and be counted this week, some players were not putting in the same effort at crucial moments to ensure ball came back on Scotland’s side. Who the missing men were is difficult to say, without the benefit of in-depth analysis, but they will probably appear on the team’s video today.
England deserve much praise for the way their front five demolished Scotland a few times in the scrum, claiming two against the head and rocking others, and how they effectively won the lineout contest with 11 wins to Scotland’s nine, both sides stealing twice. Scotland boasted possibly the biggest second row pairing ever to take the field in Test rugby, in Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton, behind one of the strongest tightheads in Euan Murray, but for all their defensive work, with Gray’s tackling immense, it did not show going forward.
England grasped this game at key moments, reacted sharply to Scots’ reluctance in defence on occasions, dominated the breakdown and launched themselves from the platforms of turnovers and unexpected chances which showed stolen ball not only to be expected but at the heart of their gameplan.
There was a gap in abilities we knew existed between a very good set of English players and a relatively young Scottish group with a mixed bag of skills. The question, as always, was whether Scotland could close it for long enough spells to force England to make mistakes and question themselves.
But that required the other big attribute that Scotland are short of at present: confidence. We said beforehand that this was a tough assignment, not only because Scotland have won at Twickenham so rarely, but because this was a Scottish side coming off a defeat by Tonga against a home one that finished a year of recovery with a comprehensive victory over New Zealand.
That confidence told in the key areas of contact and defence. Where England were organised, strong and consistent, Scotland played in patches, their desire to make sure they got defence totally right actually costing them split seconds in moving forward; leaders were hesitant; and where England had the right number of bodies committed to rucks more often than not, Scotland got it wrong more often than not.
Interim head coach Scott Johnson was left to reiterate his points of recent weeks, that the challenge of turning around the Scotland team is not one to be taken lightly.
It will not happen in one week of coaching and one game, but is a long-term project. Confidence and skills need improving to threaten victories in this rarefied atmosphere, and this 80 minutes merely underlined the harsh reality that England are stepping up to a new level once again and Scottish rugby has a lot of work ahead to remain on the coat-tails.
England: A Goode; C Ashton, B Barritt, B Twelvetrees, M Brown; O Farrell, B Youngs; J Marler, T Youngs, D Cole, J Launchbury, G Parling, T Wood, C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan. Subs: J Haskell for Morgan (46mins), D Care for B Youngs (57), M Vunipola for Marler (57), T Flood for Twelvetrees (68).
Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland, S Lamont, M Scott, T Visser; R Jackson, G Laidlaw; R Grant, D Hall, E Murray, R Gray, J Hamilton, A Strokosch, K Brown (capt), J Beattie. Subs: D Denton for Strokosch (13), R Ford for Hall (47), A Kellock for Hamilton (55), H Pyrgos for Laidlaw (73), M Evans for Hogg (78).