‘And sent him homeward to think again.’
As the renditions of ‘Flower of Scotland’ rang around Murrayfield on Saturday night, shaking the ground to its foundations, Scotland produced an almighty performance to decimate England’s title hopes and indeed send ‘Proud Edward’ home with much to ponder as the capital’s celebrations went long into the night.
From the scuffle in the tunnel before the game, which could land Owen Farrell in further trouble, to the resounding cheers at the final whistle, Scotland outthought, outfought and outplayed Eddie Jones’ players to record their first Calcutta Cup victory in a decade.
They were simply immense, following Gregor Townsend’s masterplan to the letter to produce a performance that blew their oldest rivals away, unveiling a complacency that could not be shed to match the Scots’ intensity.
From number 1 to 23 Scotland outplayed their opposition, producing a performance built on an impregnable defence and complemented with an attacking verve that lit up the fixture in a way the Scots have failed to do this century.
The greatest praise must be reserved for Huw Jones, the outside centre who produced a truly world-class performance that England could simply not compete with.
Last year, he was made to look clueless at Twickenham as Jonathan Joseph cut between him and Alex Dunbar on numerous occasions. But, on home turf he delivered his revenge in the sweetest manner, making Joseph anonymous by slicing through the white line time and time again.
His first try may have required a bit of luck with the bounce of the ball, but it spawned from his great understanding with the outstanding Finn Russell inside him and his willingness to chase a ball that was seemingly cut off from all sides, before he appeared with it, diving over the whitewash.
If his first was lucky then his second was pure class. Producing a similar line to the one for his try against France, he sped between Owen Farrell and Nathan Hughes without them laying a finger on him. Then, showing a combination of speed and strength, he bisected Mike Brown and Anthony Watson and dotted down.
In between his own tries, Jones helped to set up Scotland’s best of the game. With nothing on inside their own 22, Russell produced an audacious, beautifully floated pass out wide, drawing Joseph out of the line in search of an interception and opening a gap which Jones accelerated through. He made his way to the opposing 22 before eventually being hauled down, leaving Scotland to recycle quickly and ship it to the other wing for Sean Maitland to slide over before England’s regressing defence had reset.
Jones’ performance was of the highest quality and proved the difference between the two teams, offering Scotland the clinical edge that they have lacked in the past and leaving his namesake cursing in his box that he was allowed to slip through the English school system without being spotted.
If Jones was the star, then the backrow were the foundation for this victory. Like last year, when they outplayed Ireland and Wales in this fortress of a stadium, John Barclay, Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson made a nuisance of themselves all day, turning the ball over consistently to deny England any momentum.
Their brilliance highlighted the imbalance of England’s own loose-forwards with Eddie Jones still unable to find the out-and-out seven that he highlighted as necessary at the start of his reign.
Sam Underhill, yellow card aside, improved the back-row immeasurably when he came on and must start against France. However, the problem lies deeper than one player and England’s breakdown skills need to improve across the field if they are to become the world’s best team. Too often, they find themselves with a shortage of players clearing out and must become more effective in their breakdown work by increasing the intensity of their clear-outs as well as their ability to identify the true threat to the ball.
Scotland gave a masterclass in picking which breakdowns to compete at, often leaving rucks that they could not win before pouncing at the perfect moment to secure a turnover. England are still struggling in this area and until they have it sorted they will struggle to dominate teams in the way that they want.
This is symptomatic of England’s wider problems. For all the mental improvements that Jones has made in his team and the ability to win that he has instilled, it is questionable whether they are a much better team than when he took over.
Since his fantastic opening year, in which England went unbeaten, the team have seemed to stagnate. They have continued to finish teams off but have rarely looked fluent or dominant in their victories. Perhaps this defeat will help to address any complacency that may have been beginning to slip into their minds and offer the chance to revaluate their performances.
Other than the breakdown, they will be worried by how Scotland constantly got outside of their defence with long miss passes and an inability to break down defences as freely as they used to.
The problems in defence seem to be caused by the system that Paul Gustard has installed with the team. In their search for line-speed, they rush up on the outside, meaning that a talented fly-half such as Russell can easily pick individual gaps out if one player is slightly out of position.
This match is not the first time that such problems have been apparent, but while England have previously scrambled to recover, on Saturday Scotland were too clinical and took advantage of any break to score and compound England’s errors.
In attack, England need to be creating more than they did on Saturday. Admittedly, they came up against an inspired Scottish defence but they only threatened in short patches, which is not good enough if they want to be the best.
Jonathan Joseph had one of his worst games in an England shirt and dips in and out of games too often for a player of his quality. Once Henry Slade and Eliot Daly return, one of them deserves a run in the 13 shirt to give them a chance to show what they can do with their footballing skills. Until then Ben Te’o should be given the chance to provide a positive outlet for go forward which would give George Ford and Farrell an escape route when things aren’t working.
Jones’ decision to remove Mike Brown for the final 20 minutes was telling as he tried to chase the game and suggests that he appreciates that England are a more attacking outfit with Watson at full-back. He should be given the chance to start there against France, which opens up a slot on the wing for the impressive Jack Nowell and increases the running options for the two playmakers to pick out.
It is true that teams learn more from defeat than victory and it is now vital for Jones’ team to learn from their errors on Saturday and address their issues. If they finish their Championship strongly with two victories, their final day showdown with Ireland may offer a shot at the title and redemption.
Scotland’s match against Ireland is just as important for them, not just in terms of winning the Championship, but also to prove that they can win away from Murrayfield. If they produce another performance of this quality then even Ireland will struggle to cope with them, but for a team renowned for travelling badly that is easier said than done.
If they can get an unlikely victory in Dublin, then who would bet against the winning the Six Nations in Rome the following week. With players of Jones’ quality in their team, such dreams are firmly within their reach.
Image courtesy of England Kath
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[…] Published in The Student on 27th February 2018 […]