Groundhog Day again as Scots out-manoeuvred and out-muscled

Scotland head coach Vern Cotter. Picture: PA
Scotland head coach Vern Cotter. Picture: PA
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LAST week, one of the numerous Sky channels hosted a 24-hour marathon of back-to-back showings of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day. Anyone who witnessed Saturday’s Calcutta Cup knows exactly how the audience must have felt.

Scotland defended bravely but made too many mistakes both with and without the ball. The visiting forwards packed a little too much muscle and they strangled the life out of this match in the second half. Scotland conceded two penalties to England’s driving maul and would have conceded three points had Owen Farrell’s radar been on song. Groundhog day indeed.

On Saturday the Scots trailed by just one point at half-time and you would be forgiven for thinking that the wind was in their sails after dominating the final act of the first half which bears some scrutiny because it illustrated Scotland’s problem.

The home team enjoyed high field position but such was the aggression of England’s defence that the Scots were pushed back with almost every play.

Every phase was agonisingly slow because England competed hard at the breakdown which, in turn, meant that the defence was well organised to rush up and compete hard at the following breakdown; a vicious/virtuous circle depending upon which coloured shirt you were sporting. The contrast with the quick phase ball from yesterday’s Ireland/Wales game was painful.

While Vern Cotter wants his team to attack with the ball in hand they will need to bring a little more imagination to bear when doing so to avoid being swallowed up by defenders who almost invariably had a physical advantage. It would have been nice to see Russell vary things by dabbing the ball in behind the English defenders on occasion.

Even then it was a one-point game until the 50th minute when Jack Nowell scored the decisive try for England. Russell and John Hardie both made to tackle Mako Vunipola but, at the very last second, the Scottish stand-off noted the England overlap out wide and he skipped outside Hardie to cover the danger.

You could argue that Tommy Seymour did not have time to shuffle out to mark Nowell now that Russell had the inside man covered but at this level much of the game is about split-second decision-making and the mistake capped a miserable afternoon for the Scottish winger. He was also guilty of jamming in when Nowell’s chip kick earned England that crucial five metres scrum from which George Kruis opened the scoring. He could have drifted out because Matt Scott had the inside covered.

Scotland fought back well and they were in contention at half-time. Ten minutes into the second half, following Nowell’s try, it was all but over. England tightened their grip on proceedings and the Scots never seriously threatened the English line.

Part of the reason is that Eddie Jones went to the bench early and his subs had the desired effect. Courtney Lawes appeared on 46 minutes and Mako Vunipola two minutes after that, England now bossed the scrums and won two penalties.

Vern Cotter didn’t call on anyone until Gordon Reid appeared on 57 minutes and the Scottish subs did little to help the home cause. Zander Fagerson struggled on his debut but he will be better for the experience and he is obviously one for the future.

So with an eye on the future, why not plonk Ben Toolis on the bench? He too would benefit from Test time, he too is one for the future and the youngster would surely make a bigger impact on events than Tim Swinson.