Thursday 23 May 2019

Russell rules the roost for heroic Scots

Scotland 25 England 13

Stuart Hogg of Scotland
Stuart Hogg of Scotland

Mick Cleary

Never mind the Siberian 'Beast from the East' weather that is headed this way, Scotland managed to send a chill deep into the marrow of English rugby with an all-encompassing victory that has put England's defence of their Six Nations title into cold storage.

Ruins of their Grand Slam ambitions also lay scattered across the Murrayfield turf. There will be shivers of apprehension on the World Cup front too for this showed that England are fallible, particularly at the breakdown where they were wholly eclipsed, a master-class from the John Barclay-led Scotland exposing their limitations.

Huw Jones of Scotland scores the third try under pressure from Anthony Watson of England Photo: Getty
Huw Jones of Scotland scores the third try under pressure from Anthony Watson of England Photo: Getty

England's discipline was woeful, conceding a host (13) of penalties, turnovers, too, and having Sam Underhill sin-binned. Homeward go England 'tae think again'. It was a sobering experience.

It was Scotland's first Calcutta Cup triumph in a decade and thoroughly deserved. The Scots, so hapless in Cardiff, were heroes to a man. They played with the inventiveness that had troubled New Zealand and Australia in November. This was their sixth home championship victory in a row. They have rolled back the stone from that dreadful opening day to rise again.

There were standout performances from fly-half Finn Russell and centre Huw Jones, the back row en bloc, warriors in dark blue. The pack, too, stood its ground. From the usual annual dirge in this fixture to a delight, a full-bore, full-blooded encounter with thrust and parry as well as no little skill. Passion is a given in this fixture and there were reports of a scuffle in the tunnel after the warm-up with England's Owen Farrell involved.

Flaky Finn or Fabulous Finn - which was it to be? The question had been posed throughout the build-up and there was a resounding answer. Russell ruled the roost. It was a seminal display, replete with daring and perception.

John Barclay of Scotland holds aloft the Calcutta Cup and helping Scotland to a victory over England in the Six Nations earlier this year
John Barclay of Scotland holds aloft the Calcutta Cup and helping Scotland to a victory over England in the Six Nations earlier this year

The Paris-bound fly-half had been mercurial in this championship, capable of foul as well as fair deeds, an impish spirit but inconsistent. There was little point in urging restraint for that is to deny the very thing that makes him a special talent. And that was just as well as Russell was a pivotal influence. He was given licence to thrill and thrill he did.

It doesn't pay to take your eyes off the 25-year-old playmaker. There is a sense of possibility in so much of what he does. It was that way in the 15th minute when Russell, under fierce pressure from Farrell, dinked a kick through into no-man's land between attack and defence. The ball bobbed and ricocheted, Scotland centre Jones, as has been the case this championship, was first to react, grabbing the ball and scooting over the try-line. The score was greeted uproariously, fittingly enough given it was the first try by Scotland in this fixture in 14 years.

It was no surprise that Gregor Townsend's men played with huge heart but it was the clinical precision of their play that was so marked. And in Jones, Scotland had a man at the top of his game. Russell was the prompt, Jones the executioner.

The 24-year-old was again on hand in the 31st minute, holding his line out wide to receive an audacious, floated pass from Russell on the 22. Away went Jones, deep into England territory. He was eventually hauled down only for the home side to recycle quickly. Hooker Stuart McInally took it on with great purpose, England back-pedalled and Scotland took advantage with the ball fired wide to Sean Maitland who dived in at the corner.

If that score rattled the Murrayfield rafters, the noise was seismic when Jones surged between Farrell and Nathan Hughes for his second try two minutes from half-time. There is no player more finely-tuned to the potency of the angled attack than Jones. Vision and timing, nerve and pace, packaged to perfection. Greig Laidlaw's conversion took the score to 22-6.

Murrayfield was stunned, staggered and delirious.

This was a testing moment for England. They pride themselves on being able to deal with adversity. This was a crisis with knobs on.

England did at least show guts, indicating very early in the second half that they were up for the fight, Farrell scampering through unchallenged within four minutes of the restart, Mako Vunipola having dented the defence with a rumble.

English hopes flickered and came close to being fully ignited with two possible tries within the next minutes being overruled by Nigel Owens and his officials. Danny Care was racing away for an interception try only for play to be called back for a penalty against Joe Launchbury, and then a breakaway try by Farrell was rendered void for a marginal knock-on in the tackle by Courtney Lawes far up the field. On such margins.

That was England's chance, and it was gone. Their woes were compounded when replacement flanker Underhill was sin-binned in the 67th minute for a shoulder-led, no-arms tackle on prop Jamie Bhatti. Russell kicked the penalty goal.

England pressed in desperation, Scotland held firm and Murrayfield erupted, warming the cockles, with no sympathy for England's Big Freeze.


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