Far worse Scotland sides have put in more competitive displays on England’s home patch, writes Duncan Smith
Well, that’s one way to take England’s much-vaunted ‘finishers’ from the bench out of the equation – start a match so calamitously that it is gone by the end of the first quarter, never mind the last.
For all the positivity of this year’s championship, the sheer horror of their record at Twickenham meant Scotland had no right to head into yesterday’s match with any swaggering sense of expectation. However, the buoyant Scottish supporters were probably entitled to feel that the days of traumatising record hidings on this epic scale had been consigned to the past.
Far worse Scotland sides than this one have put in much more competitive displays on England’s daunting home patch and it was quite shocking to see everything unravel so spectacularly.
Only twice in Vern Cotter’s admirable reign have Scotland received a real stuffing – against the Springboks when depleted by injury at the end of the 2014 summer tour and in the last game at home to title-chasing Ireland in the 2015 Six Nations whitewash.
Due credit must go to this magnificent England side, who didn’t seem to find the burden of equalling the world record of 18 straight Test wins too “paralysing”, as Scotland assistant coach Nathan Hines speculated they might in the build-up. They grasped their date with destiny with both hands and wrapped up the retention of their championship for good measure, with a new record and back-to-back Grand Slam to go for in Dublin next weekend.
Anything that could go wrong for Scotland did from the off and some of it was misfortune, such as the injuries to key men such as Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and replacement Mark Bennett, which threw the back division alignment into disarray.
However, skipper John Barclay rightly refused to use that as an excuse afterwards, and the harsh truth is that this demoralising collapse was almost entirely self-inflicted.
Yes, England were excellent, but who expected anything else? Their streak is approaching unprecedented levels and there was a widespread feeling that frustration over some below-par, albeit winning displays, in the tournament so far was more likely to prompt a positive response yesterday rather than any dip in confidence.
The hope was that Scotland would respond in kind and lift their performance even higher than those uplifting home wins over Wales and Ireland and least be in the game entering the closing stages. Then it was billed as unfolding as a test of Scotland’s resolve in repelling a formidable England bench, which included the likes of the returning Billy Vunipola, his brother Mako, Danny Care and Anthony Watson.
The wheels came off from the first minute, though, as Fraser Brown’s own personal Twickenham hell deepened. His last contribution at the London stadium had been to throw in the lineout which led to the late winning Australia penalty in the World Cup quarter-final. Yesterday his crazy tip tackle on England wing Elliot Daly led to a yellow card, which could easily have been red, and the home procession began soon after. From there Finn Russell missed touch with a penalty, and the belief seemed to rapidly bleed out of Scotland and a ravenous England were not slow in picking up the scent.
The word out of the Scotland camp was that everything at stake in this game had been consciously avoided in the lead-up, but how much that mindset can be contained is debatable. As they ran out on to a pitch that has not hosted a win by a team in dark blue for 34 years, the Calcutta Cup and Triple Crown were there on plinths as shiny reminders.
Before the whistle both sides were title contenders and, as well as that Test record, the Welsh win over Ireland the previous evening meant England also had the championship to go for too. This was a game where everything else seemed to be up for grabs, minus the Wooden Spoon, although that was only off the table after Italy’s home loss to France earlier. Remarkably, following the third round of matches, it was still mathematically possible for Scotland to finish in any position from first to sixth.
With all this bubbling away in the background the Lions debate was not at the forefront of many minds, although coach Warren Gatland had challenged Scottish players to use the occasion as a perfect stage to press their claims, a challenge spurned on nearly all fronts.
Russell had a day to forget, Hogg and Seymour departed hurt early, the back-row were blitzed and Tim Visser, who had rocketed into the frame by putting George North firmly in his pocket last time out, didn’t get his hands on the ball for the full first hour. The usually solid Alex Dunbar missed a tackle for the first England try and, even more startling, Jonny Gray was ordinary.
Twickenham still stands tall, all three braying tiers of it, as Scotland’s ultimate bogey ground. But that is our problem, not theirs, and the men in white were more than entitled to issue a polite handshake and say “thanks for coming chaps, do come again” to their pulverised guests.
When former Scotland coach Jim Telfer indulged in a strangely-timed attack on Twickenham as a venue at the start of the tournament there was a suspicion that it could come back to bite. During that rant, Telfer also compared Eddie Jones to Donald Trump. Debatable, but there is no argument that yesterday the England coach won bigly. Believe me.