MATCH REPORT BY STUART BATHGATE @ BT Murrayfield
A MAGNIFICENT performance by Scotland produced not merely the first victory in a decade over England, but the best result so far of the Gregor Townsend era – and the biggest vindication to date of the head coach’s attacking philosophy.
Before the Six Nations started, Eddie Jones pointed out that Scotland had often performed well in the autumn but failed to deliver in spring, and that argument gained in credence after the opening-day defeat in Wales. It was not altogether refuted, either, by the subsequent win over France, but after this remarkable display there should be little doubt now that this is an altogether more impressive Scotland team than those predecessors whose gains towards the end of the year were shown in the Championship to be fleeting.
Of all the statistics that might be used to illustrate why Townsend’s team won, one will surely suffice. After scoring just two tries against England at Murrayfield since the Six Nations began, Scotland scored three here in the first half, which ended with them 22-6 to the good. Huw Jones scored two either side of a touchdown by Sean Maitland, with Greig Laidlaw converting two after getting the day going with a penalty.
Only three points were added after the break, by a Finn Russell penalty, but crucially England only scored once in the second half as their attempted fightback failed to gain momentum. Jones’ team had been masters of self-discipline in their last outing against Wales, but here they offended time and time again – beginning in the third minute when Mako Vunipola’s failure to release in the tackle gave Scotland that third-minute lead – the first time in three games that they had gone ahead.
The advantage lasted until the 14th minute, when Hamish Watson was pulled up for the same offence some 25 metres out and Owen Farrell made no mistake with the kick. Before England had time to draw breath, however, the home team were back in front. After a driving maul had taken Scotland to the edge of the 22, Finn Russell put in a grubber that sowed all sorts of confusion in the defence. Another boot forward by Jones evaded Anthony Watson, and Jones himself seized on the loose ball just a couple of metres out to touch down between the posts, giving Laidlaw the simplest of conversions.
An illegal block by Grant Gilchrist led to Farrell doubling his tally just a couple of minutes later, but as the first quarter ended, a 10-6 lead was nonetheless evidence of a first-class start by Scotland, who remained camped in the opposition half for the bulk of the next 10 minutes. The defence was just as impressive as the attack had been, a fact demonstrated when England next threatened, with John Barclay wrestling George Ford to the floor and winning a penalty when the stand-off failed to release.
Scotland take on England with flare and pace
The key to Scotland’s first-half dominance, however, was their eagerness to stretch England and attack at pace – an approach that again paid dividends in the 31st minute when Maitland scored his side’s second try. Jones’ deep break from a Russell pass set up the position, Stuart McInally carried it on, and then another floated pass by the stand-off gave the left-winger just enough space to touch down in the corner. For once, Laidlaw was off target with the conversion attempt.
England’s attempt to hit back ended when Barclay again won a penalty in the tackle, and Jones then got his second try, powering through the first line of defence on an acute angle then having the power to drive the last eight or nine metres to the line with Watson and Mike Brown on his back. Laidlaw took the tally to 22, and Scotland were able to play out the last couple of minutes of the half safely.
As expected, England upped the tempo at the start of the second half, and they pulled a try back after four minutes. They had already come close to scoring when Russell recklessly chipped away possession, and although Scotland regained possession then, the defence was unable to deal with a simple run by Farrell, put through by a Danny Care pass. Farrell himself added the two points.
Moments later Care thought he had scored himself after intercepting a Laidlaw pass on halfway, but Nigel Owens called the play back for a penalty to Scotland. Stuart Hogg’s long-range effort fell short, and another chance went begging when Hamish Watson just failed to collect what looked like being a scoring pass from Peter Horne.
Failure to score might not have seemed to matter so much at that point as long as England were penned back in their own half, but that changed when the ball went loose in the tackle and was hacked on for Farrell to touch down. On inspection by the TMO, however, it was clear that Courtney Lawes had knocked on while tackling Barclay, so no score was given.
Jamie Bhatti and Tim Swinson became the first home substitutes of the day, and then, just inside the final quarter, Ali Price came on for Laidlaw before Blair Kinghorn came on to make his debut in place of the injured Tommy Seymour. The scoreboard had not moved for 20 minutes, but that changed with quarter of an hour remaining when replacement Sam Underhill was sinbinned for a dangerous tackle on Bhatti, and Russell was on target with the penalty.
Willem Nel and David Denton were next off the bench, followed for his second cap by Nick Grigg. Nel soon reminded us of his value by winning a scrum penalty.
With two minutes to go, England, still a man down, came close to grabbing a lifeline – but yet again gave away a penalty, this one just a metre or two from the line, with Stuart McInally to the fore.
That indiscipline was the story of the match for Eddie Jones’ side, while the resilience in defence was just part of the triumphant tale for Scotland – after all, a brave backs-to-the-wall performance in itself does no more than limit the opposition’s points tally. It was in their determination to take England on from the start that Scotland grabbed the key to victory, and their supreme fitness that again allowed them to execute the game plan to perfection – or something very close to it.
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Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, H Jones, P Horne, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw; G Reid, S McInally, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, J Gray, J Barclay, R Wilson, H Watson. Subs: S Lawson, J Bhatti, W Nel, T Swinson, D Denton, A Price, N Grigg, B Kinghorn.
England: M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, O Farrell, J May; G Ford, D Care; M Vunipola, D Hartley, D Cole, J Launchbury, M Itoje, C Lawes, C Robshaw, N Hughes. Subs: J George, J Marler, H WIlliams, G Kruis, S Underhill, R Wigglesworth, B Te’o, J Nowell.
Scotland: Tries: Jones 2, Maitland. Cons: Laidlaw 2. Pens: Laidlaw, Russell.
England: Try: Farrell. Con: Farrell. Pens: Farrell 2.
Scoring sequence: 3-0, 3-3, 8-3, 10-3, 10-6, 15-6, 20-6, 22-6 half-time, 22-11, 22-13, 25-13.
Yellow card: England: Underhill.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).