Thirty minutes into the game on Saturday and England were writing history. 31-0 up; the biggest ever lead in the first half of a Calcutta Cup match.
What unfolded after that moment threatened to write history in another way. No side has ever come back from more than 24 points to win an international test match, but England tried their hardest to help Scotland on their way.
Although they were saved from that particular humiliation – instead, at 38-38, it was the highest scoring international draw of all time – make no mistake this was a horror movie of a second half. A collapse of such epic proportions, England’s cricket team would have blushed.
It is the Jekyll and Hyde aspect which dumfounds and frustrates so. The opening 30 minutes were stunning, England once again getting off to a blistering start and scoring their first try after 66 seconds. The forwards were demolishing the Scottish pack, Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler a pair of stampeding rhino; while the backs found space and cut the opposition line at will. He may not have even been on the pitch, but it felt like the team was channelling Joe Cokanasiga’s spirit, offloads flicked out the back of the hand with Fijian flare.
Then Stuart McInally’s charge down and breakaway try changed the momentum and in the second half, the hosts hit the self-destruct button. Whether it was an arrogant assumption that the game was already won, or disbelief in the face of Scottish brilliance, I don’t know.
By the closing stages of the match, it felt more like a game at Murrayfield than England’s fortress – the travelling contingent in raucous voice, cries of ‘Scotland’ ringing loud; the English, meanwhile, a stunned and slightly nauseous silence. It was a quite extraordinary game; for the neutral it must have been brilliant.
Scotland were as night and day in the two halves as their hosts. Missing a clutch of their best players, exposing their supposed fatal absence of quality replacements, the sheer belief and refusal to accept defeat is to be applauded. That will be invaluable for Scotland – who up until that moment were looking at a very ordinary and disheartening campaign.
But while Scotland will take belief, England will be rattled. Not just at the manner of their capitulation, but the fact this seems to be a recurring theme.
As far back as 2016, when England themselves won the grand slam, there were glimmers of this flaw. 16-0 up at the break against Wales, they conceded three second-half tries, just managing to hold onto to a nervy win.
In South Africa last summer, England collapsed from a dominant position in both their losses. 24-3 up in the first, 12-0 up in the second, they lost 42-39 and 23-12 respectively. Against New Zealand in the autumn, they were 15-0 up, before going on to lose 15-16.
Eddie Jones has credited this fatal flaw as a psychological one, ‘it is 100% mental, there was no physical difference in the second half’, he said in the post-match press conference.
‘It’s like we have some hand grenades in the back of a jeep and sometimes they go off when there’s a lot of pressure,’ he later told the BBC. It has since been reported he is planning to bring an expert in to help address these issues.
This is not a simple issue to fix. And what complicates things is the message that has been sent to England’s World Cup opposition. Not matter what the scoreline, no team will believe they are beaten against England. If Scotland can turn it around, England’s poolmates France and Argentina will certainly believe they can too, let alone top opposition like Ireland, Wales, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand.
Why this issue seems to have escalated recently is that England have become too reliant of Owen Farrell – and to a lesser extent, Ben Youngs. When the halfbacks have an off game, or even just an off half, the whole team collapses around them.
Since being given the chance to run the show from 10, Farrell has repaid his coach in kind – in the face of the disheartening implosion against Scotland, we should not forget that England were very good in the Autumn, and were brilliant against France, Italy and Ireland. They scored 24 tries this Six Nations. Their level slipped for a half against both Scotland and Wales. The issue is that when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.
The added responsibility of the captaincy seems to be contributing to this. Very few teams ever place the burden on their creative fulcrum. It made more sense when Farrell was stationed at 12 and the creative onus shared; England have also clearly missed the wider leadership of the likes of Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola.
Now, when problems start to arise, as both their chief-creator and valiant leader, Farrell seems to feel like he has to single-handedly change England’s fortunes. It leads to rash decisions and poor judgement, shoulder charges, intercept passes and charged down kicks. On Saturday, for the third time in recent memory, he was lucky to escape a card.
That Jones decided to sub his captain on 70 minutes – rather than just shift him out to 12 – to make room for George Ford was a telling moment.
Things began to spiral, yet no one tried to change the tactics until Ford’s introduction. With absolutely nothing to lose, Scotland were revelling in the chaos, wayward kicking was inviting Scotland to attack and the game got so fast and loose, any defensive structure disintegrated. Instead, England needed to hold onto the ball, slow the game down and dictate the tempo. Or play a proper territory game – kick the corners and challenge to Scotland play from their five-metre, rather than the halfway, line. Could England not see how to adapt, or was it just that they couldn’t?
This leadership vacuum is also not a new issue, it was why they brought in Will Carling as a ‘leadership mentor’, but it clearly has not been resolved.
England have concentrated pressure on Farrell and that is risky. I think the best option – if Farrell is to continue at 10 – is to give someone else the captaincy. Let Farrell focus on being England’s flyhalf, rather than rallying the troops and building relationships with referees (not his strongest talent anyway).
There is a case for Hartley being reinstated on the basis of his captaincy credentials, but I think that would be a mistake given the quality of Jamie George’s recent performances. The captain has to be picked on merit. That leaves Itoje and Mako. In my view, either would make an excellent captain. Itoje is no longer the callow youth being tipped for greatness, but the heartbeat of this England pack; he will be 25 during the world cup (Sam Warburton was made Wales captain at 22). However, my personal pick would be Mako – undisputedly world class, a two-time Lion, and he has both the temperament, experience (over 50 caps) and respect of his teammates.
Whatever the decision, England need to find a solution to this fatal flaw, and soon. There are no more competitive matches before the World Cup – just warm-up friendlies, and they will not offer anywhere near the same pressure cauldron to test the players mentality as the Six Nations or, indeed, a World Cup knockout game. We will just have to hope it is resolved by then.
By Henry Ker