While the garlands, the headlines and the man- of-the-match award all went to the backs who scored the tries and caught the eye, spare a thought for Scotland’s big men who stopped the mighty English pack in its tracks, like a locomotive hitting the buffers.
England were out-fought on the day and that is what must hurt Eddie Jones more than any technical or tactical shortcomings. The one good thing from an English perspective is that this reversal occurred at Murrayfield in 2018 rather than in Tokyo at RWC’19.
England attempted to drive a lineout on three occasions and on three occasions they went absolutely nowhere, unless being driven into touch and turning over possession counts. At half-time Paul O’Connell marvelled on TV at the incredible physicality that the Scots brought to the game.
Scotland held on to the ball and their decision-making was spot on most of the time, with the odd hiccups coming from Stuart Hogg with the boot and Peter Horne with that delayed pass in the second half.
At the Six Nations launch, Jones had mocked the Scots for throwing the ball wide at every occasion and that barb could have persuaded another coach to alter tactics, especially after the debacle against Wales when going wide was all Scotland did. Not Gregor Townsend. In the opening minutes of the match, Finn Russell’s miss-pass found Sean Maitland unmarked on the left wing and, from the Scots’ first lineout, two miss-passes found Tommy Seymour in space on the right flank.
But Scotland added variety to their attack on Saturday and they kicked the ball a surprising amount. With less possession than England, the Scots still kicked 38 times compared to 28 for the opposition. Russell repeatedly dabbed the ball behind the defence in opposition territory, which led to Huw Jones’ first score and was successful in countering England’s line speed.
Townsend’s team varied the tempo just as they varied the point of attack. For periods of the game the Scots took a leaf from Joe Schmidt’s playbook, with repeated pick-and-drives, slow and deliberate. Either they would draw a soft penalty from England’s frustrated defence or they waited until Russell saw an opportunity in the wider channels, at which point pace was injected back into the game. Slow, slow, quick quick, slow.
England got themselves back into this match with Owen Farrell’s 43rd-minute try but it wasn’t to be. The Scots took the heat out the game and, at the death, when England threw the kitchen sink at them, the Scots’ defence remained resolute.
But England made life easy for the Scots with their lack of discipline, losing the penalty count almost 2-1. Trailing by just ten points around the hour mark, England conceded three penalties in the space of seven minutes, the last one earning Sam Underhill a yellow card, which should not stop Jones from selecting him to start against France next up.
The turnover stats were 10-4 in Scotland’s favour and that was after John Barclay admitted that before the match the Scots had decided not to commit bodies to the breakdown because of the danger of the Ford/Farrell axis exploiting the inevitable space elsewhere.
But with England failing to man the rucks properly, the Scots flankers filled their boots. Even Russell poached England’s pocket when the ball was out the ruck and the stand-off simply bent over and picked it up.
Referee Nigel Owens, pictured inset, made his favourite call, “play on, play on”, and while the Scots were fully deserving of their win there is little doubt that they got most of the 50/50 calls from the Welshman, especially in that third quarter when England threatened a fightback.
That was especially true in the case of Danny Care’s non-try. England coach Jones made no complaint, indeed he was entirely gracious in defeat, but Owens made a very strange call for such an experienced referee.
He only penalised Joe Launchbury for playing the ball off his feet at the breakdown after Care had intercepted and raced away for what would have been a try. At no point prior to Care’s break did Owens call a penalty advantage for Scotland or hold his harm out to signal as much.
It was a penalty offence but it could look to English eyes as though it was determined, not by the original offence, but by what happened consequently and the implications of that are truly toxic.