Stuttering England still on course
Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
March 13, 2011
England's Tom Croft is engulfed by his team-mates after scoring © Getty Images
England were far from grand but the Slam is alive...just.
The grey clouds were gathering over Twickenham before kick-off in an indication of what was to come across a bruising and draining 80 minutes. The blue skies had returned by the final whistle both on and off the field but not before the hosts had weathered a battling display from a Scottish side that may well see this as a major missed opportunity.
This was not the free-flowing England that swept Italy aside, nor was it the power-packed team that saw off Wales and France. And there were only brief glimpses of the expansive game that they may have hoped to roll out against a Scotland side short on confidence and seemingly destined for a Wooden Spoon decider against Italy on the final weekend of the Championship.
The hosts were forced to scrap for every inch by a Scotland side determined to end a drought at England's HQ dating back to 1983, and led by a coach equally driven to remind his previous employers of his prowess. They came tantalisingly close to re-writing the record books with a superb defensive effort, rattling England and knocking them out of stride.
Errors littered England's performance and while they can point to their own imprecision a lot of credit must go to the Scots for revealing the cracks in Martin Johnson's glory-chasing side. The England boss will no doubt be aware of the shortcomings highlighted by an abrasive Scottish unit, but so will Ireland as they plot to spoil the party in Dublin next weekend.
But most importantly England survived a stern test of their title credentials and will learn from this latest victory as they have done at each stage of this Championship journey. The scrum was at its rock-solid best while the lineout was as reliable as ever, but they struggled to capitalise on that dominance and impose themselves on the game - thwarted time and time again by Scotland's ball-hungry defence.
That workload was always going to take its toll. With the game in the balance a yellow card for Scotland flanker John Barclay proved to be the tipping point and the visitors' resolve was fractured if not broken. England flanker James Haskell rose to the challenge of a fired-up Scotland pack and few would deny him the Man of the Match honour while Nick Easter - a stand-in skipper when centre Mike Tindall was forced out of the game with an ankle injury - was also up for the fight.
And a good job for England too with fly-half Toby Flood and scrum-half Ben Youngs struggling for the time and space to stamp their authority on the game. Flood was some way from his incisive best but there will be greater concerns about Youngs' continued battle to find the form with which he exploded onto the Test stage. Danny Care is a more than able replacement but a wild pass following his second-half introduction was a little alarming.
The back three of Chris Ashton, Mark Cueto and Ben Foden fizzed away but got little change out of the Scots and it was left to flanker Tom Croft to power over in his first game back from a shoulder injury suffered in the autumn. The strength in depth available to Johnson will bring him some cheer as he reviews this far from pretty victory but there is evidently work to be done if they are to close out this Championship and power on to the Rugby World Cup.
His charges were almost guilty of playing too much at times, forcing the ball rather than relying on a more basic approach. Their ability to balance their creative tendencies with the more rudimentary demands of the coal-face will define how far this team goes.
Scotland's gutsy display was perhaps best summed up by a superb try-saving tackle from fullback Chris Paterson on Foden. His lung-busting effort to haul down his younger and fleet-footed rival drew deserved applause from all corners but by no means was he Scotland's only stand-out performer.
The second row duo of Alastair Kellock and Richie Gray were superb with both proving to be large thorns in England's side at the breakdown, while the latter's industry in the loose underlined his value to this side. It is worth remembering that Gray is only 21-years-old and the youngest member of Andy Robinson's squad. He is now arguably the best player at his disposal.
The new-look centre pairing of Sean Lamont and Joe Ansbro may not have had the success in midfield that the visitors would have hoped but the creative flair shown by winger Max Evans for his superb individual score and the composure displayed by fly-half Ruaridh Jackson in landing a long-range drop goal are huge positives for a side thought to be bereft of such game-breaking talent.
But there remain question marks over their set piece, with their fraility at the lineout and in the scrum undoing much of their good work elsewhere. There is clearly work to do if they are not to end this campaign win-less with a bullish Italian side heading to Murrayfield next weekend. Looking further ahead they have no reason to fear their next meeting with their 'auld enemy' at Eden Park on October 1 during the World Cup but they need to kick on because their rivals surely will.
It was not the most entertaining of contests, and only marginally more enthralling than the elusive fox that entertained the Twickenham masses and evading officials before the game, but at this stage of an unbeaten season there will be no complaints from Johnson and co.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
Firdose Moonda looks at the moves towards greater integration within South African rugby ... and what the future holds
Martin Gillingham looks ahead to what he believes is the most remarkable ever climax to the league phase of the Top 14
With just two rounds left in the regular season, we look at the prospects of the teams taking part in the Championship play-offs
Joe Simpson talks to Charlie Morgan about loss, Wasps and being England's game-breaker