Six Nations: It was sorcerer vs apprentice, flair against flair and Finn Russell won it, just - Aidan Smith
The first thing Finn Russell – the boss – did was, well, what was the first thing? The man was playing the occasion, and the challenge, very coolly.
This was billed as sorcerer versus apprentice. President of the Magic Circle facing the threat of the brightest young conjurer around. Flair against flair, flash taking on flash, and a contest within a contest likely deciding which of these two teams could be on for a memorable tournament.
Murrayfield is proud of having, every year around this time, one of the great entertainers in world rugby pulling rabbits from hats and popped passes from nowhere – and the sell-out crowd was intrigued to see how Russell would handle the exciting England 10.
But could Smith, 22 and winning just his sixth cap, perform on what was his Six Nations debut? Could he do it away from Twickenham where he plays for his club and in a rumbustious atmosphere far from that comfort zone, with the wind swirling and the rain lashing?
This wasn’t polite pit-pat with the Duchess of Cambridge, the new patron of England Rugby, for the benefit of the Royal presspack. This was Scotland on a dark and stormy night.
Amid all the noise coming from the big bowl in EH12, Smith might have ventured: “Go on, then, let’s see your famous no-look offload.”
And Russell might have bit back: “I dare you to try your goose step up here.”
But it was a subdued opening for these two, and for everyone else. The first scrum took an age to satisfy the referee and there are only so many times you can boo “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. The home fans wanted the world’s oldest fixture to explode into life.
Smith, though, would have been happy getting a feel for the ball and the occasion, pinging the short passes that characterise his game. Russell was keeping his long ’uns in his pocket.
Another question, and a key one: how would Scotland handle being installed as favourites for the Calcutta Cup and indeed beyond? Clive Woodward declared beforehand we could win the Six Nations. Sam Woodward said we’ve never been closer to claiming the title. And Eddie Jones, England’s Aussie coach, quipped: “The pressure’s all on you, mateys.”
This is a highly unusual position in which to find ourselves. Scots in sport aren’t used to it and probably don’t like it overmuch. But the pressure from early England forays was doused by the fierce home defence, with man-of-the-match Matt Fagerson already prominent.
Smith wasn’t wimping out like Des O’Connor who, rather than face a Scottish audience in an even growlier arena - Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre - feigned a fainting fit. And he opened the scoring with a penalty.
But Scotland hit back right away, Russell lighting the dark blue touch paper for slick passing leading to a thrilling break by Darcy Graham. The little winger fed Ben White who’d only just replaced head-knock casualty Ali Price. White would make way for the Lions scrum-half’s return a few minutes later, but what a brilliant cameo.
Danny Cipriani, who was England’s future once, said in the build-up of the fly-halves’ rivalry: “I can’t remember seeing a more dynamic head-to-head for years.” But this encounter between them was still to catch fire as Smith slotted another penalty and, right at the end of the half Russell, having been biffed by Ellis Genge after he’d fired off a pass, countered with one of his own.
Russell is 29, same as Stuart Hogg. Hoggy’s direct opponent, Freddie Steward, is a year younger than the bold Marcus. Time marches on. Our captain and his playmaker would love to be winning the Six Nations before any more of these young whippersnappers pop up from behind the hill, although Steward won’t be including, early in the second half, that blooper under the high ball on any showreel.
But then Smith struck a blow for the next generation. Ben Youngs fed him from the base of a scrum 15 metres out and he zipped over the line. No goose step, but England were back in the lead.
How would Scotland respond? How would Russell? He had a kick charged down but this would be the only blemish on a night when he would do more damage with the boot than those quicksilver hands.
Another Graham surge through the middle, leaving half a dozen opponents clawing at thin air, was greeted with thunderous roars. The wee guy had been responsible for the two most exciting breaks of the match and, as Smith exited the stage, he wasn’t finished yet.
First, Russell fired a kick out to the right. Duhan van der Merwe collected but after bulldozing through a couple of tackles was halted. Scotland’s 10 then went left, Graham stretched and although there’s not much of him, Luke Cowan-Dickie thought it best to punch the ball out of play. Bad move, and a penalty try to the Scots.
The crowd sensed victory. “Flower of Scotland” boomed round the stadium. Another penalty, not difficult but when it could win you a game against the Auld Enemy not a skoosh either, and Russell fired it high between the posts.
In their individual battle he hadn’t got the better of Smith, scorer of all England’s points, and fair play to the young pretender, he doesn’t take an age with his kicks like Owen Farrell and that’s in his favour. Maybe it was a draw between the 10s, but that wasn’t the result that mattered.
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