Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe stuns England to settle Calcutta Cup thriller
New England head coach, same old story. For the fifth time in six years the Calcutta Cup is in Scotland’s possession and another season of Six Nations toil could now await their deflated rivals. Not since 1972 have Scotland beaten the auld enemy three years on the trot and it is Gregor Townsend rather than Steve Borthwick who can now look ahead most eagerly to the rest of the championship.
Borthwick and his players seemed to have victory well within their grasp when they led 23-19 with just 15 minutes left of a fluctuating contest. Instead there was to be a tartan twist as Scotland’s flying Duhan van der Merwe finished off a flowing counterattack in the left corner with six minutes remaining. Once upon a time the Scots hated playing at Twickenham; these days it is one of their favourite venues.
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If it was rough justice on England’s Max Malins, scorer of two sharp tries, and the tireless Ollie Chessum it was an outcome that had already threatened to materialise at various moments on a still grey evening. Borthwick has only been in charge for one game but some familiar issues, not least the balance of the midfield, have clearly not gone away.
A penny for a certain former coach’s thoughts back in Australia. At least there was a renewed energy and desire from the home side in the first half. But for all Scotland’s resilience and opportunism there was not much to suggest we were watching anything other than a mid-table scrap. When Ireland and France study the footage they will not feel unduly worried.
At least Scotland’s new captain, Jamie Ritchie, can now encourage his team to believe they can now have a real go at this year’s championship, with Wales due at Murrayfield next Saturday. Borthwick’s England, though, will be well aware this was a game they should have won. When Borthwick spoke afterwards of “having to go through some pain” he will be aware there could be a fair bit more to come.
At least England’s initial gameplan was abundantly clear: get Finn Russell. The spirited Lewis Ludlam was clearly under orders to chase down the conjurer from Racing 92 with Ellis Genge also given licence to run hard and straight. Russell, though, is a tricky matador to subdue indefinitely. First the fly-half put the straight-running Huw Jones into a massive hole which led to England’s scrambling defence conceding a penalty advantage. With a free play available Sione Tuipulotu rolled a chip into the in-goal area and his Glasgow teammate Jones gleefully did the rest.
At 7-0 down after quarter of an hour England badly needed a reaction. Resilience is among the super strengths of their new defence coach Kevin Sinfield and here was a situation which demanded a good deal of it. The reshuffled coaching panel will have been suitably relieved when England built a little pressure at the other end and Marcus Smith’s cross-kick was splendidly gathered in by an unmarked Malins.
All that good work, however, was about to be undone. There did not seem much obvious danger when Van der Merwe received the ball inside his own half in the middle of the field but the picture was about to change radically. The South African-reared wing burst through the first attempted tackle and left three more players trailing in his wake before Alex Dombrandt loomed in his eyeline. Unfortunately for England, the No 8’s challenge was ineffectually high and the strong-running Van der Merwe was able to complete a quite stunning 55-metre score.
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Russell’s conversion attempt bounced back off the left upright but Scotland still had a handy 12-5 lead three minutes before the interval. There would have been some cursing under the posts, consequently, when England managed to engineer more space on their right flank and the energetic Ludlam put the lurking Malins over for his second try.
Owen Farrell, though, missed his second successive conversion and there was an ironic cheer from the stands when the England captain slotted a straightforward penalty to put his side 13-12 up at the interval. If their advantage felt slightly against the run of play, there was no questioning the hosts’ desire to play when they had the chance.
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The territory stats at half-time were also encouraging from England’s perspective. They had enjoyed the better of the kicking battle and 68% of the game had taken place in Scotland’s half. Close to the opposition line they can also ask forceful questions and, eight minutes into the second half, there was no stopping the determined Genge from a couple of metres out.
Four years ago Scotland came back from 31-0 down to secure a 38-38 draw in south-west London so a 20-12 deficit was not entirely terminal. What a bonus it was, even so, when the ball squirted out from the back of a Scottish ruck a couple of minutes later and London Irish’s Ben White reacted quickest to swivel and run 20 metres to score.
Russell’s conversion made it a one-point ball game again with Scotland looking the livelier of the two sides. Had Van der Merwe clung on to an inside ball from a flying Stuart Hogg there could have been a fourth Scottish try but England’s front row reinforcements seemed to be turning the screw. Everyone reckoned without the final blue surge which ended with the irrepressible Van der Merwe driving over in the left corner. Cue yet another rhapsody in blue.