Saturday 21 April 2018

England learn little in stodgy victory

Scotland 9-15 England

England out-half George Ford celebrates his side's hard-fought victory over Scotland at Murrayfield Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
England out-half George Ford celebrates his side's hard-fought victory over Scotland at Murrayfield Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Scotland's Duncan Taylor tries to escape a tackle from England's George Kruis Photo: Reuters / Russell Cheyne
England's Dylan Hartley Photo: Reuters / Russell Cheyne
England's Owen Farrell kicks a penalty Photo: Reuters / Russell Cheyne
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A victory for England, but quite whether you can say much more about it probably depends upon your viewpoint coming into the match. If you were of the opinion, as I was, that Scotland were not half as good as so many thought, and that England were not half as bad as so many thought either, then the answer has to be not much.

England won in order to start Eddie Jones's reign on the correct footing, but it was not a performance of which to be especially proud in a match that will be forgotten very, very quickly.

Jones said of England's set-piece play: "It won us the game in the end. Our line-out was very good in the second half and our scrum really came to life."

It was a woeful match in truth, full of mistakes and chronically lacking cohesion. Picking out outstanding individuals is difficult, but one did stand out amid the muddle, and he was No 8 Billy Vunipola. He carried and carried, always making yards and it seemed at times as if he was trying to win the match on his own. James Haskell had a decent game too and for Scotland, flanker John Hardie was their best player by some distance, but too many players were way below their optimum.

England had scored first after 14 minutes and it had been little surprise. They had totally dominated proceedings up until then, even if they hardly looked like cutting Scotland apart. At one stage they went through 11 phases and then had to resort to a drop-goal effort from George Ford that did not find its target.

However, the pressure had to tell in some way and it did when a kick ahead from Jack Nowell, who was put down the right by George Kruis, was taken over his own line by Stuart Hogg. From the resultant scrum Vunipola picked up and drove hard, and then from the next phase Kruis drove even harder to score. Owen Farrell, taking the kicks rather than Ford (was there ever really a debate?), converted.

Scotland responded with a penalty from Greig Laidlaw after Chris Robshaw transgressed, and they were energised further by some smart work by Finn Russell and Matt Scott.

They had another opportunity when Ford, who was looking panicky at most points, was pinged for hanging on, but Laidlaw missed the difficult chance.

He made no mistake on 37 minutes, though, when presented with a simple kick in front of the posts.

England's scrum had been under a little pressure when Vunipola picked and raced away from it, but he became isolated and when the ball went loose, Joe Launchbury pounced on it, but he was penalised for holding on. It was 7-6 to England. Dan Cole was penalised for offside after Vunipola had knocked on and Dylan Hartley got a short talking to from referee John Lacey.

Scotland were very much in the game now and were causing all manner of problems for England at the breakdown, where the visitors began coughing up penalty after penalty.

Suddenly Hardie burst through and Scotland were in the England 22 as the interval approached. But they opted to send Russell back into the pocket for a drop-goal attempt that he scuffed horribly, and so it remained 7-6 at the end of a dreadfully error-strewn half.

That theme continued when England made a Horlicks of the kick-off and allowed Scotland to mount a series of attacks on their line. Scotland conceded a foolish penalty at the breakdown - with no England player present - to let the visitors off the hook.

But not for long as Cole conceded another penalty. Then Jonny Gray dropped the lineout. Goodness, this was getting tedious. Where was the quality control?

In fairness, Cole then made a superb turnover so that Ford could kick well to the corner and then Farrell could have a tricky long-range penalty that he missed.

Lo and behold, though, from the mess in front of us, suddenly England produced a little cracker of a try. Mako Vunipola was now on for Joe Marler at loosehead prop and he was involved instantly as he showed tremendous hands to create a slick score for Nowell. Vunipola passed behind his back to Farrell, who put the lively winger in at the corner. Farrell missed the conversion, but it was 12-6.

The mood changed. England now looked to exert their authority and they kicked to the corner. But even there they could not produce what they wanted. In truth they probably should have continued a powerful driving maul but chose to move the ball, and then when it went right replacement Ben Youngs threw Finn Russell a lovely interception pass that the Scotland fly-half might have done more with than kick away instantly. Indeed had he looked left he might have seen that he had support and acres of open field in which to work.

England made him pay when Farrell struck an excellent penalty from 46 metres after a scrum. It was 15-6.

It was a lead for England but not surely enough to warrant Nowell taking a quick lineout inside his own half and landing Mike Brown in a bit of trouble. Hogg made sure the ball was run back effectively and the penalty was Scotland's. Laidlaw made it 15-9.

For the first time in the match there was a little niggle, and, no, it did not involve Hartley, but, yes, it did involve Farrell and Brown. It was nothing really, though, but Brown did make an uncharacteristic mistake soon afterwards, kicking straight out.

Hartley departed after 76 minutes and, whether it was coincidence, it was interesting that England's best scrummage of the match came immediately afterwards. They won a penalty from it and from the ensuing lineout went through 10 phases so that they were deep in Scotland's half when the final whistle went. Ford booted the ball into the stands and there was some celebrations from England. It must have been relief. It cannot really have been anything else. We move on swiftly.

Scorers - Scotland: Laidlaw 3 pens; England: Kruis, Nowell try each; Farrell pen, con;

Scotland: Hogg; Maitland, Bennett, Scott, Seymour (Taylor 65); Russell, Laidlaw (capt); Dickinson (Reid 58), Ford (McInally 64), Nel (Fagerson 69), R Gray, J Gray (Swinson 70), Barclay (Cowan 59), Hardie, Denton.

England: Brown; Nowell, Joseph, Farrell, Watson; Ford, Care (B Youngs 54); Marler (M Vunipola 49), Hartley (capt; George 76)), Cole, Launchbury (Lawes 47), Kruis, Robshaw (Clifford 69), Haskell, B Vunipola.

Referee: J Lacey (IRFU)

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