England kicked off the defence of their Six Nations title by hosting Scotland. Gregor Townsend’s team showed a vast improvement in 2020 but almost found themselves going behind in the opening seconds as Maro Itoje charged down Ali Price’s clearance, only for Jonny Hill to be penalised for sealing off 5mfrom the line. The Scots cleared their lines and took the game to the Auld Enemy and a series of penalties saw them work their way down the pitch and open the scoring with a Finn Russell penalty. The English indiscipline continued and led to Billy Vunipola being sent to the bin on 24 minutes for persistent offending by the team. Scotland looked to take advantage of the extra man by kicking to the corner, but Hamish Watson was held up on the line and 5 minutes of reset scrums resulted in a Finn Russell cross-kick that bounced just a little too high for even Duhan van der Merwe to claim. The Scots soon got the try they were looking for though, as Sean Maitland beat Jonny May to a high ball on the edge of the England 22, and when the ball was spread wide to van der Merwe, the wing powered through tackles from Elliot Day, Owen Farrell and Mark Wilson to score the only try of the game. Russell was unable to score the conversion from out wide, and when Rory Sutherland gave away a penalty for not rolling away, Owen Farrell kicked the 3 points to get on the scoreboard, before adding another penalty right before the half as Russell was sent to the bin for a trip on Ben Youngs, leaving the halftime score at 6-8, a scoreline that flattered the English.
The Scots had to see out the first 9 minutes of the second half a man down, but did so with aplomb by keeping the ball tight and drawing England into giving away more penalties, which allowed Russell to come back on and immediately kick the team back into a 5-point lead. The rest of the half saw England try – and fail – to produce anything that even resembled attacking play, while the Scots held firm in defence, and though Stuart Hogg’s team missed a couple of kicks at goal and began making a few errors, they were able to hang on for an historic 6-11 win to regain the Calcutta Cup.
This was a result that has been coming for England, and Eddie Jones has nobody to blame but himself. Over the last couple of years, he has created a team that actively discourages any form of positive rugby and instead focuses on defensive solidity, forward dominance, accurate kicking – both from hand and at goal – and taking advantage of their opponents errors in order to put points on the board. That’s all well and good, until your pack gets outplayed and you’re the team giving away all the penalties.
Of course, the selection can’t have helped either, with half the team having not played in months due to either the league not playing (the Saracens players who make up a key core of the team) or COVID outbreaks in the squad. This was a team coming in missing crucial rugby fitness and it showed, with flat performances across the board. Owen Farrell looked shell-shocked, Billy Vunipola could only make it just past the hour despite having a 10-minute break in the first half, while Ollie Lawrence and the backs outside him must have been wondering who they had insulted to get so little ball.
An when England so desperately needed an attacking spark coming off the bench, they replace Mark Wilson – a solid defensive player but not an attacking star – with Courtney Lawes, leaving Ben Earl on the bench. For so long, Eddie Jones has got away with his ridiculous selections and tactics by drawing out wins; now that their opponents have rebuilt, England are going to have a much harder run, and it’s time to move onto a coach that selects players on form and looks to play attractive and effective rugby at the same time.
In an alternate reality, Cameron Redpath could have been playing for England today, instead he was making his debut for Scotland and playing a key role in the victory. Aged 18, he was called up to Eddie Jones’ England training squad but an ACL injury ruled him out for months. Tied in with the arrival of big names at Sale, he found his chances limited, but a move to Bath has really worked out for him and I feel that switching allegiance to Scotland will work better for him than staying with England as Townsend will do a better job getting the best out of him that Eddie Jones would.
In this match, he really showed England what they were missing, running brilliant lines and always being willing to take the ball on, while also earning a key turnover penalty on halfway that would have stretched the lead to a 2-score claim had Stuart Hogg not kicked wide. He will certainly face bigger challenges in defence, but he already looks like an established international rather than a debutant, and that is the highest of praise.
Could he be in with a shot of a place on the Lions Tour, assuming t goes ahead? I think that this Tour may have just come a little too soon for him, but if he can carry on performing like that, he could certainly push his way in as a late bolter.
And so with the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa due to take place this summer, it is the return of Lions Watch, looking at players whose chances of making the squad were helped or harmed by this game.
As well as Redpath, fellow recent Scotland call-up Duhan van der Merwe showed his quality in attack, with his size and power giving an extra dimension out wide. Hamish Watson continues to shine every time he puts on a Scotland shirt and it’s hard to imagine that his power carrying and doggish determination at the breakdown would not see him make the plane. As for England, Maro Itoje was probably one of the few players to not do himself harm with a performance that saw him solid in defence and putting heavy pressure on Ali Price whenever he was kicking from the base of a ruck. Finally, Stuart Hogg put in such an assured performance including some inch-perfect kicks to touch that really highlighted his quality at a moment when the fullback shirt looks up for the taking.
On the flip side, Owen Farrell‘s struggles may lead to a worry that a lack of top flight rugby will see him fail to reach his heights this summer if he can’t turn things around quickly. Finn Russell had some moments of quality, but his trip on Ben Youngs was a timely reminder that he is not the most solid option in defence, while Ellis Genge may have taken a hit as his struggles against Zander Fagerson in the scrum may outweigh his carrying in the loose when you consider how dangerous a weapon the Springboks scrum is. Finally, Billy Vunipola looked far from fit and very rarely looked a threat with ball in hand – is his time at the top of the game over?