A hundred and fifty years on from the first match between England and Scotland, the 2021 Calcutta Cup was one of the most one-sided incarnations of rugby’s oldest rivalry as Gregor Townsend’s side stormed Twickenham.
Though the 11-6 score line suggests a close game, Scotland dominated for 80 minutes, producing their most complete performance in recent years, while England produced arguably their worst. So what did Scotland do well, what did England do badly and where does Saturday’s result leave both teams?
Flair and invention have been hallmarks of Scottish rugby during Townsend’s tenure, but what made Saturday’s display so well-rounded was Scotland’s ability to amalgamate their creativity with competency. Half backs Finn Russell and Ali Price and captain Stuart Hogg managed the game superbly as they pinned England back with accurate kicking, while Scotland’s set piece was almost flawless. Their tactical proficiency enabled Scotland to control the match in a way they never have against first class opposition as they starved England of territory and possession.
Innovative attack did nonetheless feature in Scotland’s win. Faced with an aggressive rush defence, Russell deployed several attacking kicks to find space behind England’s blitz. One such kick was the starting point for Duhan van der Merwe’s crucial try. With England’s defence well-set, Russell put up a contestable kick which winger Sean Maitland tapped back to number 8 Matt Fagerson. By the time Fagerson was brought to ground Scotland’s attack had realigned and the ball went along the back line to van der Merwe who brushed aside three England players to score.
To complement Scotland’s game management and attacking inventiveness were some mammoth individual performances. Jonny Gray outworked everyone else on the pitch with relentless tackling and carrying. Elsewhere in the pack, Hamish Watson was at his explosive best, bouncing off tackles and creating breakdown chaos. Debutant Cameron Redpath also deserves a mention for consistently providing front foot ball and being a solid distributer in the mid-field.
As good as Scotland were though, England were in many ways the architects of their own downfall. An unforgiveable penalty count, unprompted handling errors and unreliable set piece yielded possession and territory to Scotland at key moments throughout the game.
More worrying than these self-inflicted errors was England’s refusal to keep the ball in hand as they kept kicking possession away. This kick-heavy strategy is part of a data driven game plan which Eddie Jones has been implementing since becoming England coach. In many instances it has worked. Think England vs France in 2019 when Jonny May scored a first half hattrick on the back of attacking kicks. However, on a few occasions, when met with a well organised back three, this strategy has proved ineffective. Welsh fullback Liam Williams, for example, nullified England’s kicking game in their 2019 Six Nations encounter. The problem England have is not with the kicking tactic itself, but with their inability to adapt when it fails. This sort of inflexibility has been the one blip on Jones’ otherwise successful record as England coach and in order for England to progress as a team Jones needs to rethink his reliance on and stubbornness about certain tactics and players. Scotland thrashed England but need to win consistently to have a shot at winning the Six Nations title.
A photo of Scotland winger Duhan van der Merwe training