IT WAS fitting that when the decisive moment came in this Test match it was Billy Twelvetrees who was at heart of it. The dispiriting thing – no, make that the mortifying thing – for Scotland being that it came so painfully early in the evening.
Three minutes into the second half and that was the game. Done. When the debutante from Gloucester, sharp as a tack and bringing an ingenuity to an England midfield that has lacked it for so long, crashed through what remained of the visitors’ defence England eased 15 points clear and disappeared out of sight. A contest for 43 minutes. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.
We have seen this team shoot themselves in the foot so often that it’s tiresome to behold. Were England good value for their victory? Unquestionably. They deserved to win by more. Were they supreme in terms of their performance? That’s an altogether more complicated question. Sure, after Twelvetrees scored they became rampant, lording it to such an extent that for spells it was like a boxing match where only one fighter was allowed to throw a punch.
Scotland took terrible punishment, their only ambition for most of the second half being some grim battle to keep the score down, to leave here with some crumbs to feed off ahead of Italy on Saturday. Their scrum collapsed under the strain of staying alive. They were routed at the breakdown. And, yes, they never caved in, never allowed their spirit to be crushed, never gave up. They broke out and scored a try, a counter-attack involving two of the brightest sparks in blue, Sean Maitland and Stuart Hogg, but it was like the last kick of a dying team. In any event, England just went up the other end and scored another of their own. And they scored it with a near effortless ease.
In Scotland’s search for optimism there is something to be said for dwelling on the attacking nous of this pair. God help us, but this is what it has come to. Hogg was wonderful, full of pace and invention. Maitland was classy, forever on the hunt for opportunity, forever asking questions of the England defence whenever he got the ball, which wasn’t nearly often enough.
In the grand scheme, though, none of it mattered. England won so many individual battles that Scotland were fortunate to escape with a 20-point beating, the scars of which might take a time to heal. You only had to look at Ruaridh Jackson’s demeanour to know what an experience this was. Owen Farrell didn’t so much out-play him as make it look like they were playing entirely different games.
Before the mini-rally, there were moments when you truly feared that a 50-pointer might be coming, a passage of play that saw Joe Launchbury score a try in the 53rd minute only to have it disallowed because of a high tackle earlier in the move. The relief of the escape was hopelessly short-lived, of course. Scotland ceded possession, watched on as Farrell flung a delicious pass over the heads of Matt Scott and Johnnie Beattie, a piece of skill that was Barbarianesque, which gives you an idea what it was like out there in that moment. England scored seconds later, Geoff Parling, a burgeoning force in this England pack, driving over to stretch England’s lead to 20 points with more than a quarter of the ordeal still to play out.
After Twelvetrees scored and rendered the rest of the day an exercise in how much England were going to win by, they began to turn it on. Only then did they really look the part. They had control up front and in Farrell they had a stand-off who conducted things wonderfully, who did some gorgeous things and pulled Scotland to shreds at times. But to get themselves into that comfortable position they didn’t have to be anything cosmic. That’s the truth of it. England established their 15-point advantage without ever having to be anything out of the ordinary.
Here Scotland loaded the revolver and shot themselves in the foot, just like they have done so often. Time and again, when the Test was a contest instead of a stroll, Scott Johnson’s team made grievous errors and were made to pay for them. After Maitland’s try gave them impetus, they gifted England six points, the second of those penalties having its origins in a wild pass at scrum-half from David Denton that soared over Jackson’s head and set Scotland on the retreat.
Midway through the opening half there was not a lot in the England performance that would have sent tremors through Scotland, but then the unforced blunders opened doors and in walked the English. A Jackson kick was charged down and by the time Scotland got their hands on the ball again, Chris Ashton had scored and Farrell had converted and England led by eight. Those dying minutes of the opening half were painful. Just before the break, Beattie, who did some fine things, needlessly stuck his arm around Ben Morgan’s neck and gave away three points, a mistake that put Scotland 11 points behind and really on the brink. It was then when England found themselves, then when their pack took ownership of the game, when Tom Wood and his back-row and Parling and Launchbury in the second-row blasted the visitors out of every ruck and maul, carrying hard and often, spreading Scotland to the winds.
Twenty points? Scotland were fortunate. Next up, with a gulp, come Italy.