As the England team trudged off the Twickenham pitch late on Sunday afternoon, you could be forgiven for thinking that these weary bodies were not those of a team who had just beaten their oldest rival and were now one victory away from achieving their first Grand Slam since 2003. England had experienced their greatest test yet in this year’s competition against this unfancied Scottish team, and left with rather more grounded expectations, if aspirations of glory still intact. This was not the comfortable English victory many fans had expected and, perhaps, taken for granted.
As England struggled for rhythm, Scotland were relentless and showed clear signs that that they could build upon the blueprint laid down by the French two weeks previous. They competed at every breakdown and played with the great line speed in defence that France had used so effectively to swamp the English midfield. Against both Wales and Italy, England scrum half Ben Youngs’ service had been near immaculate, which in turn allowed Toby Flood the platform to further assert himself in international rugby.
Here, however, both Youngs and Flood were suffocated by a fearsome and hungry Scottish defence, not helped by an English pack offering little in the way of ball protection. Working largely off only first phase ball, England’s more threatening backs were summoned to make the breaks into Scottish territory, but with the powerful Scottish pack competing ferociously at each ruck, helped by the openside John Barclay who was later unlucky to be sin binned, many of these attacks invariably halted soon after.
It was this ball protection, or lack thereof, that should have the England coach Martin Johnson most worried. England lost one lineout out of their total of fourteen, whilst their scrum was an immovable object, yielding many penalties in the process. But the sheer number of English turnovers, many coming from handling errors or simply greater Scottish power at the breakdown, meant that England could not take advantage of their set piece dominance and failed to build momentum. Many attacks broke down after little more than a few phases.
England’s first half against France saw similar problems at the breakdown, but the team responded with vigour and, more importantly, increased muscle. That England suffered from the same problem this week was initially strange, but the inability to respond as they had done against France was bizarre. Where Johnson’s team previously appeared to be adept at learning from mistakes, this canny ability seems to have gone missing for now. James Haskell’s fine display of tackling and ball carrying was rewarded with the title of man of the match, but one suspects that England may have been more successful had Haskell, along with blindside Tom Wood, been better employed at the breakdown.
The English midfield again flattered to deceive, tackling honourably whilst offering little incision, but England have shown that they have enough pace and guile in their back three to accommodate less subtle beasts in the centre. If England are to reign in Dublin then they must replicate some of the defensive work that has returned the England team to the peak of northern hemisphere rugby. This means committing more men to the job of ball retention at the tackle area, whilst similarly counter rucking the opposition’s ball to disrupt their fluidity. If this means one less Haskell or Louis Deacon in the midfield then so be it.
England still travel to Dublin this weekend with a very real chance of winning the Grand Slam, but if they do not learn from the experience of the last two weeks then they risk succumbing to a raging Irish team fresh from a controversial loss against Wales and eager to gate crash England’s victory parade.
By Tom James