What on earth could we do this time? Not turn up at all? Relocate the game to Inverleith, scene of the very first skirmish between the countries, without telling them and claim a walkover?
Or surprise England. Keep faith with Finn Russell, the occasional wizard at No 10 who they thought might be dropped after being seriously out of sorts against Wales and not much better against France – and what’s more equip him with an even pointier hat. Turn “side to side” – English head coach Eddie Jones’ dismissive summation of the Dark Blue style – into wildly sashaying killer country dancing topped off with three tries for each winger. Whatever, just win. Get muddy hands on the Calcutta Cup any old way.
The big surprise beforehand was that Jones didn’t attempt to shovel more criticism Russell’s way. It was left to Ben Te’o, England’s New Zealand-born centre, to spout the potentially inflammatory statement. This ancient contest meant nothing, he said, the Calcutta Cup was “completely irrelevant”.
How would Murrayfield respond to that? How would the stands react to the England players reminiscing about those early attempts at gamesmanship in a wholly unscarred manner? Certainly the pre-kickoff cries of “Scotland, Scotland!” were lusty, so too the booing of Swing Low, Sweet Home-Made Wonky-Wheeled Bogey or whatever it’s called.
How would Russell respond to the pressure on him? Pretty well. One short pass then a long one hit their targets. He jinked under pressure and found fine distance with a punt. The next delivery didn’t quite come off but after Greig Laidlaw and Owen Farrell traded penalties he had a foot in a Scotland score. It wasn’t the most artful kick but Huw Jones sensed the possibilities, as he usually does, and Scotland had claimed a try on home turf against their dear neighbours for the first time in 14 years.
Russell was chest out, shoulders back, relaxed, a millions miles from being cowed, and sniffing the cold evening air for the next opportunity for a flairful intervention from his Pick ‘n Mix selection. He’d arrow a pass then point to the receiver where the ball should go next. He might even have been smiling as he did this, something which baffled observers earlier in the tournament when things came unstuck.
They almost went horribly wrong on the half-hour and seconds later they went wonderfully right. A long Russell pass – was it 400 yards? – was almost intercepted by a leaping Jonathan Joseph but Huw Jones collected and belted forward. In the next phase Russell was again involved, the ball finding its way out to Sean Maitland who plunged over.
England had shown precisely nothing of their second-best-in-the-world form. Penalties were given up in rapid succession – 13 of them by the end – and then, incredibly, with the stadium going nuts, they conceded a third try. It was the Jones boy who touched down after a rhino-charge through the heart of the visitors’ defence. He had Anthony Watson and Mike Brown flailing desperately at his ankles but they couldn’t halt him.
The try was reminiscent of Alan Tait’s best-ever five points for Scotland at Twickenham in 1999, a heroic failure despite the team crossing the line three times. Would this happen again?
England captain Dylan Hartley kept his men on the pitch for a minute or two at the half-time whistle and, whatever was said, they began the second period feistily. The Scottish fans might have been thinking that little had been seen of Farrell in an attacking sense just as he zipped through for a try. More outstanding disguise from Russell almost enabled Peter Horne to set up Hamish Watson for a bolt to the line and then Farrell thought he’d scored again. But his long run and football skills came to nought with the cameras spotting a knock-on. This seemed like a pivotal moment.
A fairly significant moment for Russell came on the hour-mark. It was at this juncture against France that he was hooked. This time it was Laidlaw who made way. Russell was holding on to his role as playmaker and Scotland were holding on to their lead. And slightly increasing it. Following Sam Underhill’s yellow card, with Laidlaw gone, Russell had to step up for the penalty. No problem. What was all that about him being a liability?
England came again but the Scottish tackling was stupendous. The guys with the thistles prominently positioned about their person forced knock-ons. They hassled yet more penalties out of their opponents. Flower of Scotland started up – in six different parts of a ground that was shoogling with joy. Chris Robshaw, who battled hard, had remarked that turning up in a white shirt at Murrayfield was “like going into the heart of the fire” but England had worked the place out and were no longer daunted.
Ah, but that was before they’d encountered Finn Russell in his even pointier hat.