Fired with deep feelings of injustice after that refereeing blunder, Scotland were urged to take out their World Cup frustrations on the Auld Enemy. Meanwhile England, embarrassed by their own cock-up of their own tournament, were encouraged to take out their frustrations on us. Something had to give last night.
Who seemed the more determined before kick-off? There was the dark-blue captain Greig Laidlaw, who swore he’ll take Craig Joubert’s mistake to the grave, singing Flower of Scotland lustily, chest out and somehow seeming to have grown a couple of inches since last October. But there was Dylan Hartley, the controversial new red-rose skipper, scanning the stands darkly. Slightly paranoid he may be – “People just want to see me muck up,” he said – but he looked like he meant business.
New captain, new coach, and a new approach for England to a Murrayfield skirmish. Eddie Jones, the man in charge now, had allowed the players some beers through the week but had brought them up to Edinburgh late. A quick in-out job, no messing about.
Jones had also taken his charges for a Hyde Park stroll. There, he said, they’d encountered lots of duck poo. He’d also made them train in their white shirts rather than practice gear – “to get used to the colour”. Maybe what the pugnacious and provocative Australian actually meant had got lost in translation but the best part of 50,000 Scots in the gathering gloom of the evening knew the hue very well indeed.
The Scots were striving to make setting foot on Murrayfield just as unpleasant for England but it was a tense, tentative – and some might have said tedious – opening period with the visitors just shading it. England blew their first opportunity when George Ford missed with a straightforward drop-goal attempt but Jack Nowell, who’d showed his fleetness of foot earlier, pushed Scotland back again for George Kruis to bag a try – and doubtless some headlines about him being a Kruis missile.
The last time England were up this way they recorded a thumping win and Scotland were lucky to get zero. There were English mutterings about relegation from the Six Nations and even criticism of the Murrayfield soup. “Did this come off the pitch?” sneered one observer. Surely we were going to cook up something better this time.
But the Scots had to work extremely hard for little reward as the England defence held firm. This was shaping up to be a throwback performance from them – grindingly grim and not pretty but bloody effective. Home fans had little to cheer – an arrowed Finn Russell kick, a Stuart Hogg up-and-under which at least produced an opportunity for Laidlaw to add to his earlier penalty but he missed.
Dan Cole, the England prop, had predicted the improved Scottish pack would be “frothing at the mouth” but if you were hoping for fireworks up front you were disappointed. Even with the combustible Hartley, the dark recesses were quiet, functional and threatening to put the game in a stranglehold.
Then, after Tommy Seymour was sent crashing by James Haskell, Laidlaw did notch a second penalty. They even had a chance to finish the half with the lead but Russell made as big a hash of his drop-goal attempt as Ford.
Cole and the rest of the English forwards – and of course Jones, who made the appointment – were hoping Hartley would keep his frothing within the confines of the laws of the game, having missed more than a year of playing-time because of butting, biting and other ban-worthy offences.
He was wrong about Murrayfield being obsessed with his hoped-for failure, though. What we really wanted to see was some of the cool running with which Scotland had astonished Australia, the World Cup and possibly themselves. Seymour still looked a good bet for a break but although Scotland started the second half on the front foot the ball wasn’t sticking to hands as we seemed to get too excited at the crucial moment. The dash when it came was delivered by England, the alert Nowell touching down in the corner.
There was talk beforehand of an England scrummaging crisis – but it didn’t look that way last night. You might have wondered what had happened to their deposed captain since it was supposedly all about Hartley now. Was Chris Robshaw eaten by a tiger? No, that was Lord Lucan (allegedly). Robshaw was still in the pack, doing a steady job.
There was also talk of a revival in Scotland’s fortunes but, with their play getting looser and sloppier, and Russell electing to punt when he should have probably sprung Hogg, that didn’t show itself either.
In the closing stages we were a converted try away from an unlikely win but never really looked like getting it. Even the jeers for Hartley when he came off with three minutes left didn’t amount to much.