Same old story for Scotland as Lancaster profits
If you had accidentally stumbled into the post-match interviews at Murrayfield on Saturday night, the briefest of glances at the faces of the two coaches would have told you all you needed to know about the preceding few hours.
England’s interim coach Stuart Lancaster was wide-eyed, beaming, even letting rip with the occasional unabashed chuckle after his team’s 13-6 victory. Scotland’s Andy Robinson, by furious contrast, had looked ready to punch his way into next week – scowling, frowning, seething, not so much a bulldog chewing a wasp as one stung all over the snout by a whole swarm of them.
Scotland had more possession, far more chances, much better territory and the obvious man of the match in young David Denton. They made 238 passes to England’s 72, spent almost twice as long in England’s half as they did in their own and forced the men in white to make a remarkable 142 tackles to their own 62.
That they still were defeated was not only a triumph for England, but also for impotence over opportunity, panic over composure. Robinson had promised before kick-off his side would unleash chaos. What he hadn’t expected was that it would be in their own minds whenever they entered England’s 22.
Three times Scottish forwards smashed through a crumbling defence to give themselves a wonderful chance of breaching the England try-line. All three times they tossed those precious chances away. First it was Jim Hamilton, striding through only for his fellow forwards to allow the ball to be turned over. Then Richie Gray rampaged into English territory and flung an over-ambitious offload that Al Strokosch knocked on by his ankles. Worst of all was Ross Rennie, away with Mike Blair free and screaming inside him but delaying his pass so long that last man Ben Foden could slap it away in the tackle.
England made sloppy errors of their own. Chris Ashton somehow found himself at first receiver from a defensive scrum deep in his own half and was summarily scragged for the penalty that allowed Dan Parks to give Scotland a 6-3 half-time lead. When they pushed on to the front foot, new skipper Chris Robshaw bulleted a pass high over Ashton’s head with the winger in space and rapid motion.
Sixteen tackles were missed in total as cold fingers slipped ankles and shoulders. Such slip-ups you might expect. England’s starting line-up had less than half as many caps in total than Scotland’s. By the end seven men without a single previous minute of international rugby on their sporting CVs had taken the field.
What was less easy to predict was how well the inexperienced would handle the pressure, the occasion and the periods of Scottish superiority. While they were breached, they never broke. Scrambled tackles saved earlier errors, cool heads stayed up when the heat came on.
“I thought we showed tremendous amounts of spirit,” Lancaster said with quiet pride. “That is what teams are built on. Fundamentally it comes down to attitude.” Scotland’s problems were not confined to England’s half. Parks’s kicking from hand early on was wayward and aimless. His dithering over a clearance in the opening seconds of the second half was a gift that his opposite number Charlie Hodgson accepted with glee.
But it was their inability once again to score a try that left the thousands of home spectators chuntering away into the surrounding streets and pubs. Saturday’s blank makes it five of their last six home games against England in which they have failed to cross the try-line.
“It seems a little like deja vu,” Robinson thundered. “We’re all bitterly disappointed about what’s happened here. We haven’t been able to take our chances. Again.”
Robinson was unhappy with television match official Nigel Whitehouse for ruling against Greig Laidlaw when the replacement chipped and chased against Ben Youngs – and also referee George Clancy at one key area. He added: “I’ve spoken to Greig. He says he got his hand to the ball first. The law says you have to have downward pressure; it looked like there was downward pressure.
“I thought George refereed it well, but my one issue is the breakdown. There was a slight difference in interpretation about releasing it. I felt they were staying over the ball for that extra fraction of a second.”
Not all will agree with him. What is unarguable is the predicament he and his side find themselves in. Scotland have now won only one of their 13 opening matches in Six Nations. Robinson has just two wins from 11 Six Nations matches in charge.
This was not a pretty spectacle. Neutrals across Europe watching from the sofa were probably off to the kitchen to make the half-time cuppa well before the first 40 minutes were up. None of us should be in the least bit surprised. These matches are never pretty. Hodgson’s match-winning try was the first England have scored at Murrayfield since Danny Grewcock crossed the line in 2004. England’s win over Scotland at the World Cup last autumn was even uglier.
The difference this time is that victory has given their supporters hope rather than a sense of impending disappointment. Lancaster has impressed most observers with his forthright words and thoughtful man-management. What we didn’t know was how good a coach he might be – and we probably still don’t. Only five players from England’s starting XV five months ago began on Saturday, as rapid a revolution as the red rose has experienced.
If this was no subsequent great leap forward from England, it never could be. Lancaster has had his players together for less than a fortnight. “It’s step one in the journey we’re making,” Lancaster said afterwards. Far sterner tests lie ahead, not least the trip to Paris to meet a French side that should have improved several notches from the one that ended the regime of his predecessor Martin Johnson last October.
Ireland and Wales are unlikely to be as profligate with ball in hand and space as Scotland’s muddle-headed wanderers. Yet neither should the victory be glossed over as simply a layer in the new foundations. England have struggled enough in Edinburgh in recent years for a Calcutta Cup win away from home to be worthy of celebration in itself. Johnson never managed one. Nor did Robinson in his spell in charge of his native country. Even Sir Clive came unstuck here in memorably spectacular fashion during the 2000 Six Nations.
Of the new boys, Phil Dowson had a tough evening. Brad Barritt tackled himself into substitution. Owen Farrell landed his most important kicks, against a crescendo of boos, while the four off the bench stood firm against the frenetic late onslaught. Lancaster said: “Given we’ve had nine days together, this is a great win.
Our discipline was very good and so was our desire to work hard, our desire to play for each other and play for the shirt. “We have lots to work on. We got broken a couple of times and we have to make sure we get broken no times. But it has given us a great start.”