Error-strewn Scots made to pay
Graham Jenkins at Murrayfield
February 4, 2012
Chris Robshaw holds aloft the Calcutta Cup after a scrappy but satisfying win on his captaincy debut © Getty Images
"If they don't beat England today when will they?" offered one noted Scottish journalist before the start at Murrayfield, seemingly convinced that the odds were stacked in the hosts' favour.
A couple of hours later he could only shake his head along with the majority of the crowd at Scotland's HQ as a new-look England, short on experience but not lacking in guts or discipline, kicked off the Stuart Lancaster era with a hard-earned 13-6 victory and secured the Calcutta Cup, a result that owed just as much to the hosts' shortcomings as it did to the defending champions' stubbornness.
The game was always going to be a huge test for an England side boasting so many new faces and facing a vastly more experienced Scotland side still seething from the apparent arrogance of their auld enemies having orchestrated their Rugby World Cup exit. It was a challenge from which England emerged with a great deal of credit and while they may not have passed it with flying colours, they did enough to signal that they are back on the right track.
The doomsayers were gathering ahead of kick off as the freezing cold, blustery wind, rain and gloom descended on Edinburgh. And the boos were such as England entered the arena that you suspect First Minister Alex Salmond would have offered little opposition to the staging of a referendum on the subject of Scottish independence there and then. It was clearly not how you would choose to make your Test match bow but the likes of Owen Farrell, Phil Dowson and particularly Brad Barritt wasted little time worrying about the elements.
The fireworks that preceded kick off offered hope of a blazing battle but that was as good as it got for the opening period. The play was painfully pedestrian at times and did little to prevent the onset of frostbite for those who had ventured out into the big freeze.
There was clear invention from England but unsurprisingly given the new combinations and the input of a new coaching team, they lacked precision in attack but the same could not be said of their work without the ball. The industry of winger David Strettle underlined the general work ethic with an impressive tackle count but he was not the only player keen to impress. Barritt also made a major impression, tackle-hungry and maybe wary of the return of Manu Tuilagi to the selection mix sooner rather than later he was a significant thorn in Scotland's side throughout.
The highlight of a stop-start affair in the opening period was a minor skirmish involving England captain Chris Robshaw. Understandably desperate to stamp his authority on the game and repay the faith shown in him by Lancaster - word is he preferred injured flanker Tom Wood as his skipper - Robshaw decided to try and make an example of Scotland scrum-half Chris Cusiter. But the feisty No.9 was not willing to play along. He refused to cower in the face of his less experienced rival and his forwards needed little encouragement to join the resistance.
Robshaw's lieutenants were a little slower in joining the party, perhaps busy working out where they ranked in the leadership group. The result was an ugly melee that left Robshaw with his shirt hanging off him. You sense that one will not be framed and hanging on his wall in years to come.
Scotland entered the half-time break with a slender 6-3 lead but it could and really should have been so much better. They did their best to heap pressure on the visitors and leverage their apparent favouritism and the immensity of the occasion but not for the first time they were guilty of not captialising on their dominance. They were rocked too easily by an England side that looked vulnerable on paper and each aimless kick that landed safely in English hands only served to give the visitors more belief.
Fly-half Dan Parks was the guilty party on more than one occasion and it seems his days as Scotland's first choice playmaker are numbered. His clearance kick that was charged down by opposite number Charlie Hodgson for what proved to be the only try of the game was greeted with groans all round. Greig Laidlaw's lively cameo on his introduction later in the game will surely trigger a re-think from coach Andy Robinson, but he has plenty of food for thought.
To their credit, Scotland rallied and once again dominated proceedings for long periods but a distinct lack of ideas and cohesion meant it was a familiar story for them come the final whistle - it is now four games without a try. But how close they came. Laidlaw's desperate attempt to beat England scrum-half Ben Youngs to a chip through went to the Television Match Official who denied him what would have been a game-changing score - much to the chagrin of the home crowd. Laidlaw appeared to reach the ball first but clearly not with enough downward pressure and that controversial call could be huge in the terms of this year's Championship and Robinson's hopes of coaching the British & Irish Lions in 2013.
England offered little in attack but what they did conjure at least smacked of fresh-thinking, albeit with a heavy Saracens flavour given the make-up of their back division, with a cross-kick from Hodgson finding Strettle out wide only for the chance to be snuffed out by the game's outstanding player.
England celebrate their victory at the final whistle © Getty Images
There were a few positives for the Scots but they don't come much bigger than No.8 Dave Denton. His dazzling display was rightly rewarded with the Man-of-the-Match honour but brought little cheer once the game had escaped his side. His energy triggered memories of team-mate Richie Gray's emergence as a world-class talent on the Six Nations stage a couple of seasons ago and he looks destined for a similar career curve. What Robinson would give for a centre to announce himself in such a way and not another back-row forward - a department where his is already blessed.
The fleet feet of Max Evans also had England grasping at thin air at times and Gray and Ross Rennie also cut swathes through the otherwise regimented England defence but support was slow in coming - unlike the cover defence. Such game-breaking invention was a rarity, so much so it seems that not even team-mates can anticipate such endeavour and take it to the next level - a try. And even when they stretched the England defence to breaking point they often conspired to butcher the opportunity with no help whatsoever.
Time and time again they were denied and as a result yet another Championship campaign starts with a loss. The woe they experienced in the 'red zone' can be attributed to the unifying powers of England's coaching team. They could be forgiven the odd error given the lack of game time together but their defensive cohesion, both structured and composed, reflects a unity forged in a few short weeks by Lancaster and co for which they must be praised. It is a building block but only that, although England will not be complaining.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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