By Jeremy Guscott
Scotland thoroughly deserved their victory at Murrayfield and if you boil it down there was a moment in the first half that summed up perfectly who was in this race and who wasn’t.
When Scotland nudged a kick through, Anthony Watson collected the ball, took it into contact and England looked to be safe and secure and, importantly, ready for their exit play.
They were in a defensive position but looked certain to retain posession and clear their lines. However, within a blink, Scotland counter-rucked and nicked the ball off them. England were set solid like they usually are for the exit, but Scotland saw an opportunity and stole the ball when they had absolutely no right to.
Nothing came from that turnover but it set the tone for the match.
Scotland were always that slight bit ahead of England in their thought processes, reaction time and general match smartness. And that didn’t change throughout the match.
When England did finally wrestle ascendancy at the start of the second half silly errors crept in to crush momentum. Owen Farrell scored a well- designed try past Grant Gilchrist to kick off the second period and a fight-back looked on. But then the interception from Danny Care was called back for a knock-on and Farrell had another effort disallowed for another knock on by Courtney Lawes in a tackle.
England could not regain that lost momentum because in between those moments Scotland were just too clever and quick at the breakdown.
The Scotland back row trio of Hamish Watson, Ryan Wilson and John Barclay were outstanding in the loose. England continually failed to commit enough numbers at the breakdown and didn’t learn as the match went on. A top international side should never be counter-rucked – let alone on several occasions.
Chris Robshaw won an early turnover for England but thereafter neither he, Nathan Hughes nor Maro Itoje could match their counterparts in the breakdown battle.
Scotland were just too quick to get in and spoil. England allowed them in and continually failed to protect their ball.
Sometimes Scotland just waited for the England attacker to go to ground and place the ball back so they could grab it with no competition. The breakdown is such a huge area these days that if you lose that battle, the rest becomes doubly hard.
I didn’t think Finn Russell would bounce back as well as he did after a pretty mediocre opening to this year’s Championship. I thought he would continue with his patchy form but he did exactly the opposite. He carried on trying things as he had in the previous two games but this time executed very well.
The pass that went to Huw Jones, who eventually set up Sean Maitland to score, was exquisite and the kick through for Jones’ try was perfect – against France that would probably have miscued.
He’s shown huge self-belief to continue playing in the same style but with nearly everything coming off. Yes, the Scots should have been penalised on occasion for being offside – at the start of the second half they reached in and picked the ball out of the ruck – but despite all that England simply weren’t clever enough about securing the ball.
When we talk about ‘quickness’ we’ve got to focus on Scotland’s new outside centre sensation Jones. He cut a beautiful line to score against France last time and no defender could get to him on his acute angle. This time, he cut a line in between a slow and tired Hughes and Farrell.
Farrell looked as though he thought Hughes would make the hit. He didn’t. One on one, you would expect Mike Brown to make a tackle but Jones is just too quick for him and had already half gone round Brown by the time Anthony Watson launched his tackle.
It was a beautfully taken try and those are the sort of lines as a former player that you love to see. Jones has seen the gap before the ball’s got to him and he’s just hoping the pass goes where it did.
For England it’s really time to get their act together. People will point the finger at Nigel Owens, wrongly, for the stream of penalties against England.
A referee doesn’t get it right all the time and if that game is gone over microscopically there will be things he’s missed for both sides, as in every game. But Owens did not decide who was going to win this game. Instead, I would like to think most fans would appreciate that Scotland deserved to win.
Scotland have had a threat in Stuart Hogg for a few years and now they look to have another real weapon in Jones. Russell’s mental hardness and Greig Laidlaw’s experience controlled the game and stopped England playing at their own pace.
The Scottish line speed hurried them and England looked uncomfortable when they weren’t allowed to dictate tempo. They looked rushed and antagonised and Scotland’s spoiling tactics worked perfectly.
Like last year in Dublin, England couldn’t find the answers.
I thought they were going to win by 10-15 points before kick-off and maybe some of the players did too and didn’t take it all on to the pitch.
I’d like to give this side a chance to bounce back in Paris in two weeks but I also want to see how a midfield of Farrell, Ben Te’o and Jonathan Joseph works.
Te’o’s got to be in that three at some stage to see if he can play that second distributor role. I also want to see more of Joseph in attack in these tight and difficult games. He’s been pretty decent defensively but sometimes he can be exposed, like he was for the Maitland try with the ball that looped over his head.
England have been taught a lesson in ‘you’re not as good as you think you are’. Playing at home in international rugby is a big advantage and sides are really struggling with raising their game for the away trips.
We’ll find out in two weeks if England can cure the travel bug in Paris.
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