Scotland Edge Calcutta Cracker

England 23 v 29 Scotland

Twickenham is draped in tartan yet again. The Scots have back-to-back wins for the first time at HQ, which no longer represents an impenetrable fortress. It was more like a playground on Saturday as Scotland edged a pulsating Calcutta cup match. It was no less than the Scots deserved; they played with confidence and composure, showing ruthlessness and efficiency in attack. There was a real zip to Scotland’s play, their passing crisp and accurate, stretching England’s defence and playing at the fast tempo that Townsend covets. Individually, there were stars in blue across the whole field, but none more so than the brilliant Duhan Van der Merwe, who scored one of the finest tries Twickenham has ever seen, skipping through 5 players with a blend of pace, power, and electric footwork. It was a compelling game of rugby, with the unique blend of skill and drama that only the Six Nations can provide.

For England, there were signs of encouragement, seeds of recovery from a difficult autumn. There was greater imagination to England’s play, and Nick Evans’s influence was abundantly clear, even if all the pieces aren’t quite there yet. England’s forwards carried with greater purpose, with Ollie Chessum being a menace all afternoon, overshadowing his second-row partner, Maro Itoje. However, some wounds have yet to heal, and England’s back play still looked a little confused; once again, questions will be posed about the functionality of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell playing together. Kevin Sinfield will be disappointed to have conceded four tries, and England’s line speed could be accused of being passive at times.

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The game got off to a cagey start, with England winning the early kicking battle, Max Malins, who had an excellent game, was particularly valuable in this area, while England harried Finn Russell well. But it was Scotland who struck first after an innovative line-out move left Huw Jones galloping into a vast open space. Scotland eventually recycled, and Sione Tuipulotu put Jones in under the posts with a beautifully weighted grubber kick. England responded well, and with their forwards starting to make some sizable dents, they narrowed up the Scottish defence. Marcus Smith spotted this and put in a cross-field kick to Malins, who finished superbly.

Scotland hit back in spectacular fashion, as Jack van Poortvliet’s clearance kick failed to make touch, and Duhan Van der Merwe decided to take flight. It was a superb score from the winger, his ambition equalled by his execution, showing tremendous pace and power, easily fending off Alex Dombrandt to finish. Scotland made 6 line breaks to England’s 2 in the match, an indication of their greater individual threat and confidence and the occasionally porous nature of England’s defence. Russell missed an easy conversion, and England started to take control towards the end of the half. Some nice attacking shape and handling led to a two-on-one, and the industrious Lewis Ludlam fed Malins for an easy score. Farrell missed a similarly easy conversion, but English pressure towards the end of the half allowed him to slot a penalty and give England a half-time lead.

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England flew out of the blocks in the second half, Ellis Genge scoring a try after some battering carries from the English forwards off the back of a line out. Dombrandt punched the initial hole with a superb line, dragging in three Scottish defenders before the rest of England’s back row rampaged around the corner. However, it was Dombrandt’s failure to deal with the restart which gave Scotland a platform from which to respond. The Harlequins man had a mixed game, picking some lovely lines off Smith but was let down by his hands several times. Scotland made the most of the opportunity they had been given; Ben White (who fully justified his selection) reacted quickly to a loose ball and sniped over after Ben Curry’s missed tackle. Scotland showed a much-welcome clinical edge throughout the game, averaging 4.1 points per visit to the opposition’s 22 compared to England’s 2.1.

A Farrell penalty edged England four points ahead, and with swathes of experience arriving from the bench, you felt England might nick it. This feeling was reinforced when Scotland butchered a try-scoring opportunity after Kyle Steyn’s excellent break. Scotland lost numerous tight games last year, but they continued to play and got their rewards as England started to look a little tired heading into the last ten minutes. It was a superb try that summed up every thing that was good about Scotland; Russell identifying the space before some wonderful hands from Fraser Brown and Richie Gray set Matt Fagerson free. Fagerson fed Van der Merwe, who still had plenty to do but finished excellently. England came back hard, but fittingly it was Scotland’s captain, Jamie Ritchie, who had the final say, winning a turnover that sealed the win.

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Hopefully, this isn’t another false dawn for Scottish rugby. Next weekend represents an opportunity to lay down a marker, to go from hopefuls to contenders. Scotland have struggled to back up major results in the past, but they face a Welsh side in transition next week. Scotland have never won their opening two Six Nations matches before, and next week represents a golden opportunity. It was far from the complete performance, but Townsend would have been greatly heartened by Scotland’s greater clinical edge, winning the game despite having only 29% territory. There were some outstanding individual performances, with Van der Merwe quite rightly being awarded player of the match, while Sione Tuipulotu had a storming game, offering a triple threat alongside the impressive Huw Jones, who justified his inclusion over Chris Harris. In the pack, Matt Fagerson made a staggering 27 tackles, Richie Gray got through a mountain of work, and George Turner made a mockery of his lineout-throwing doubters.

For England, there’s plenty to be optimistic about; they certainly played with greater freedom and imagination. There was a greater clarity to England’s play, with a clear desire to play at pace. Their set piece was pretty solid though Borthwick made some telling comments about England’s maul after the game. England struggled to make hard yards in the middle of the pitch, where their lack of power in the midfield was exposed. Ollie Lawrence impressed when he came on, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him start against Italy. Ben Earl was similarly impressive off the bench, England struggled to disrupt Scotland at the breakdown, and Earl might find himself parachuted in from the start against Italy. The big question is at fly-half; England’s most threatening moments came when Smith had the ball in hand, with his ability to threaten the line. Farrell had a good game and was especially good defensively, but England still look unbalanced with both of them on the pitch. Borthwick faces some tough decisions in the coming week, whether to back his captain or give the reins to Smith.

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