Scotland outsmart England to leave Borthwick searching for right blend
First impressions count for a lot in a Six Nations championship. It is not an infallible law – England won the title in 2020 despite losing their opening game in Paris – but teams who start fast often gain crucial momentum. Those who do not – and England have now fallen at the first hurdle for the fourth year on the trot – have it all to do.
Congratulations, consequently, are due to Scotland for having applied a painful thistle to English backsides in round one in each of the last three seasons. The 29-23 Calcutta Cup victory on Saturday might just have been their most satisfying given they scored four tries away from home and headed home with a bonus point that could prove handy down the tartan track.
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The past year has also apparently been notably productive for Scotland’s first commercial goldmine at Tyndrum just north of Crianlarich but, rugby-wise, few feelings are more priceless than hoisting aloft the world’s oldest rugby trophy in south-west London. Gregor Townsend’s record against England as head coach now reads P6 W4 D1 L1, a rich treasure trove by anybody’s standards.
Not only does it make the visit of Wales to Murrayfield on Saturday even more fascinating – Scotland’s ability to back up big wins has historically not been great – but a further twist has been added to this year’s Rugby World Cup where Townsend’s squad will be vying with South Africa and Ireland in Pool B. With the Scots, following Saturday’s result, now up to fifth and above England in the world rankings it could yet make the autumn very interesting.
Any side in the world would fancy picking an in-form Duhan van der Merwe, particularly if he keeps scoring more of the “worldie” tries that lit up a grey Twickenham evening and extended the wing’s impressive Test tally to 16 in 24 international appearances. Crucially, the same could probably also be said of Finn Russell, whose ability to discomfort England is now as much a harbinger of spring as the first snowdrops.
Rewind the tape of Van der Merwe’s fabulous 55-metre swerving score past five flailing defenders and in the background you can also see Russell and Owen Farrell pushing and shoving and exchanging some sharp words as the flying Scotsman thunders away from them towards the line. If Farrell was irked by a small but vital block by Scotland’s hooker George Turner as he went to shut down the initial danger, England’s captain has also been around long enough to appreciate a smart opponent when he sees one.
And tactical smartness is where Scotland have the edge over their auld rivals. Witness, for example, the long throw over the top and the clever use of advantage in the buildup to their first try, scored by Huw Jones after a deft little chip by his Glasgow centre colleague Sione Tuipulotu. In that instant, Scotland looked exactly what they are: a side who have been together for a while and are on the same wavelength with and without the ball.
Which brings us to a disappointed England, who really should have grabbed victory before Van der Merwe, aided by Richie Gray’s deft midfield transfer to Matt Fagerson, ripped it away. In some respects the first outing of the Steve Borthwick era was encouraging. His squad certainly moved the ball more enthusiastically than was latterly the case under Eddie Jones and Ollie Chessum, Lewis Ludlam and Max Malins all justified the faith placed in them by the newly assembled coaching panel.
But Test rugby makeovers are not just about clicking one’s fingers and everything falling instantly into place. Sean Dyche and Brendon McCullum may be showing what is possible in football and cricket but modern rugby is arguably a more complicated exercise, particularly in a competition where the margins grow ever slimmer.
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Defensive solidity is one obvious area of English scrutiny but there remains a sense that a fundamental problem still exists in terms of their midfield balance. We will never know what would have happened had injuries not forced Borthwick’s selectorial hand but Marcus Smith and Farrell at 10 and 12 remains one of those star-crossed relationships which allows neither of them to display their absolute best.
Individually Farrell’s defence was excellent and Smith’s cross-kick for Malins’s first try was impressively spotted and executed. But good defenders know Farrell is unlikely to accelerate hard and fast down their channel and understand Smith specialises in drifting across and using thunderous straight runners as a compelling decoy. It is simply a question of the right blend. Most of us like cereal and eggs for breakfast but not mixed up together in the same bowl.
With Italy next up at Twickenham on Sunday, though, Borthwick will probably be tempted to extend the experiment for another week with either Ben Earl or Jack Willis pressing hard for a back-row spot. Even if they beat the Azzurri, though, England already find themselves flirting with a third straight season of Six Nations mediocrity. Perhaps their issues run deeper than the identity of their head coach.