IF a rugby field was used as a measure of performance, England would certainly not be a perfectly manicured Old Trafford surface in mid-July. Perhaps McDiarmid Park. Scotland’s, however, would be Murrayfield.
The challenge Scotland faced before kick-off was daunting, even with England arriving off the back of an opening weekend loss. With only six days to recover from disappointment in Dublin, much of the Scots’ preparation coming into the Calcutta cup showdown would have been done at low intensity or off field. England came north with a collective attitude of unleashing their frustration after Gaël Fickou broke their hearts with a moment of brilliance in the dying moments last weekend. Hopes were high that the arrival of the Auld Enemy on home soil could spark Scotland to new levels of performance.
England, much like in 2012, were very disciplined, efficient, did their basics well and had a strong platform to play off. Defensively, they suffocated the life out of any Scottish threat. It hurts me to write this as I know every guy in that Scotland squad. To a man they will be devastated at the result. Absolutely inconsolable. You don’t put your heart and soul into preparation, sacrificing everything for the honour of representing Scotland, to walk off the field feeling that way. They don’t need to be told how disappointing it was.
As a player, losses happen. The losses that hurt the most are those where you leave the field knowing that you haven’t really fired a shot and expressed what you are about. That would sum up yesterday. Murrayfield on matchday is so special and the pre-match entertainment clearly had the stadium buzzing. The opening exchanges lacked the fireworks of the players’ arrival from the tunnel but much of that was predictable, both sides coming into the game off opening losses. The ball spent plenty of time in the air with high balls aplenty, but, more often than not, lacked the accuracy to be effective.
A missed penalty from Owen Farrell further emphasised the unpredictable surface but England did not have to wait long to break the deadlock.
The analysis in the English camp this week had clearly identified perceived frailty in the Scottish defensive lineout. On a pitch not groomed for top-of-the-ground running or multiphase attack, the maul provided a perfect foundation from which England could launch attacks. The Scots were clearly aware and chose not to compete, instead focusing on sacking the immediate threat.
With Dylan Hartley hitting his pressure-free target again and again, the horsepower and grunt England possessed behind their drive gave them go forward. The sack wasn’t effective and England regularly shifted the target and generated momentum. I’ve not been in a huge amount of mauls before but am aware that, when they gain momentum, much like a runaway train, they are almost impossible to stop – legally. Errors and ill-discipline became a real problem for Scotland. Danny Care, a permanent threat, could play with his head up and pick off Scottish defenders. Luther Burrell’s 15th-minute try was only a matter of time in the coming.
Earlier in the day, Ireland displayed a masterclass of breakdown accuracy and disruption that could be used as a demonstration video, which now puts them in a strong position for the Six Nations Championship, but with their first away match now looming against England.
France beat Italy, as expected, at least in the result, but it was not as easy as the 30-10 scoreline looks, and Scotland’s trip to Rome does not seem any more attractive now.
The important thing emerging from the Scotland camp is the honesty from players, David Denton among the players refraining from pointing fingers at others, and turning them rightly on themselves. They spoke of the resolve shown, and, while resolve in a game is never enough to win it, I also know from playing in games like this that, without it, Scotland would have been hammered. England would happily have run in tries in that last quarter had Scotland’s defence wilted. It is hard to escape the link between the Murrayfield pitch and Scotland performance. The Murrayfield grass has no foundations and it was the same with Scotland’s game. Poor lineout, scrum and breakdown, the three things you need to get right to get in a game.
With just a third of the game’s possession, missed tackles are inevitable. Billy Vunipola worked tirelessly to get himself on the ball, making 16 carries, and England soaked up every loose kick Scotland hit, to come back at them time and again. England were so comfortable in defence that their back three were able to sit deep and Scotland were forced to kick, often aimlessly.
There seemed to be a lack of understanding how to be effective, the kicking strategy let down by poor kicks but also questionable as a strategy in its own right. This was a real step backwards for Scotland and, at times like that, disillusionment and discontent will ripple into a camp. The week’s break must be used effectively, the message being to get away, refresh mentally and physically and come back ready to go at the remaining three games with a fresh mindset and attitude.
The players can’t change what’s happened so far, but they can determine how Scotland perform in Italy. They talk about learning lessons, vital in Test rugby, but, as Greig Laidlaw said last week, talk is cheap. The players have to really learn, understand and put that understanding into a performance that lifts them and their loyal support.
This period of rest and recuperation, for the squad and the Murrayfield pitch, could not have come at a better time.