With the latest edition of the Six Nations having got underway in Dublin, we weren’t made to wait long for the battle of the auld enemies as England made the trip to Murrayfield to face Scotland.
Eddie Jones’ men came in with some unfamiliar combinations, but they were the dominant team from the start, though it took 17 minutes before they could take advantage on the scoreboard, courtesy of a penalty from Marcus Smith. However the Scots appeared to be woken up by this, and after a quick throw caught England napping, Stuart Hogg put Darcy Graham through a gap and Ben White—on for his debut as a HIA replacement for Ali Price—popped up on his inside shoulder to put Gregor Townsend’s men in the lead, with Finn Russell adding the extras. As the half went on, England continued to dominate the territory game with strong carries and kicks to the corner, but a strong lineout drive saw the ball held up over the line and the only additions to the score before the break were a penalty apiece for the fly halves for a 10-6 halftime score.
It was more of the same early in the second half, with Smith adding another penalty, and as the English pack got a solid lineout drive going, the Harlequins fly half looped round to the large blind side to go over in the corner and give his team the lead, before kicking another penalty just after the hour before being replaced by George Ford. Scotland were soon on the attack though, and as Finn Russell put i a cross-kick to Darcy Graham, the wing was clearly impeded by a deliberate slap forward by Luke Cowan-Dickie and with no other cover anywhere near, referee Ben O’Keeffe awarded the penalty try to level the scores with 15 minutes remaining and sent the Exeter Chiefs hooker to the bin. As the clock ticked into the final 10 minutes, Finn Russell kicked the Scots ahead following a scrum penalty out wide, and when Darcy Graham won a turnover following 4 minutes of reset scrums, Scotland could finally boot the ball out to celebrate a 20-17 victory that would see them retain the Calcutta Cup for the first time since 1984.
Scotland went for an interesting tactics with their kicks today, choosing to keep most of them infield rather than kicking the ball out. While it suggests that they are confident in their fitness that they can keep going at a high tempo, it’s also very dangerous play as it allows England the chance to either counterattack or kick the ball back to touch for a territorial advantage.
I can’t help but wonder if this was decision was made due to a nervousness about the English driving maul. They were certainly hurt by it on a couple of occasions during the match, so any chance to reduce the number of English lineouts makes sense, while on some occasions the kick chase was so good that it actually put the opposition under pressure as they tried to kick.
However, while it took away one weapon, it gave England the chance to run the ball back and was a big factor in Scotland barely playing any rugby in the opening hour, whereas kicking to touch would have allowed them moments to regroup and even try to steal ball at the lineout.
Next week, against a Wales team with dangerous counterattackers in the back 3 but questions over the lineout, don’t be shocked to see the Scots putting more of their kicks out to touch.
England dominated this game, yet once again what should have been an easy victory turned into a disappointing defeat due to Eddie Jones’ tactics.
While the pack played incredibly well—solid in the set piece and carrying tirelessly with strength—the back line lacked any semblance of shape in attack, which is no real surprise considering it included no specialist 12s or wings and three 13s. But more than just the bad shape was the continued tactic of kicking for territory rather than playing heads-up rugby.
Marcus Smith is a fantastic talent, but this tactic hobbles him, while it also puts pressure on the defence to be solid, which it struggled to be in this match. If they played real heads-up rugby, this game would have been over by the hour, instead, England spent most of the match behind courtesy of just a few moments of attacking quality from a team who should have been down and out.