THE ecclesiastical extremists of the Keep Sunday Sacred brigade spent 40 heart-warming minutes congratulating themselves on a spectacularly successful recruitment drive yesterday. Fifteen high-profile English sportsmen appeared to have taken a unilateral decision not to work on the Sabbath and, judging by the desperate shortage of atmosphere at Murrayfield, a one-time rugby cathedral criminally reduced to an all-seater morgue, something approaching 68,000 spectators had come out in sympathy.
Sadly for the church and chapel traditionalists, Lawrence Dallaglio and company got modern in the time it took them to suck an interval orange and knock back a swift gallon of isotonic energiser. When England emerged for the second period of a hitherto flat and uninspiring Calcutta Cup encounter with their oldest and most cussed rugby foe, a thoroughly businesslike air had replaced the long Sunday-lunchism of the preceding half.
True, their game-breaking had more of the bludgeon than the rapier about it - the visitors needed an elephantine effort from their tight scrummagers and a penalty try decision from Clayton Thomas to calm whatever wind was to be found in Scottish sails - but as Dallaglio pointed out afterwards, successful international sides do not pick and choose when it comes to scoring crucial points. They take whatever is available and save the theorising for later.
"If our disappointment in Paris last month taught us anything, it was that there are huge, self-defeating risks involved in taking things for granted at Test level," said the captain, who set his usual influential example by rolling up his sleeves and volunteering himself for all manner of unglamorous duties in the rough and tumble exchanges. "With all due respect to those who decry the Five Nations' Championship and claim the Triple Crown no longer means a thing, no international victory comes easily. We didn't showboat here and we won't showboat against the Irish in a fortnight. Rugby is fun, yes, but it's at its funniest when you're winning."
While the captain emphasised that English fitness levels were still short of the optimum and also bemoaned the lapses of concentration that set the final scoreline askew, he could take satisfaction in a decisive upping of the ante in the third quarter.
The great All Black teams of the past tended to save their best for the period between half-time and the hour mark and, if it was good enough for them, Dallaglio will happily subscribe to something similar. Once Mr Thomas had decided that the Scottish front row was up to no good as the Red Rose infantry's driving set-piece hit the deck with a resounding splat on 48 minutes, there was never the remotest possibility of a 1990- style upset. Dallaglio and his fellow bicep-flexers knew they were in the pound seats at last and when more scrummaging pressure put Matthew Dawson on route one to the line 14 minutes later, a heavy English victory looked assured.
And, in a sense, it was delivered, too. Austin Healey contributed a slapstick kick-and-chase try 13 minutes from the end - not for the first time, the Scottish midfield was left with a custard pie in its collective face - and, when Paul Grayson left Dave Hilton for dead, slipped inside Gregor Townsend, drifted away from Alan Tait and screamed over the line with Gary Armstrong, Doddie Weir and Cameron Murray in futile pursuit, the smart money was going on a 50-pointer. "They call Grayson ponderous, but he didn't ponder too much once he sensed the gap, did he?" beamed Dallaglio.
Yet those thoroughly deflated Scots who decided on a hasty retreat to the car park rather than watch England revel further in their superiority were guilty of a serious tactical error. As the game drifted into injury time, Townsend performed one of his three-card tricks to free Adam Roxburgh down the right and the flanker's exquisitely timed pass gave Tony Stanger a record-equalling amble to the line. What was more, Roxburgh snaffled some more possession from the restart and succeeded in performing a similar service for Shaun Longstaff on the opposite wing.
So what, you may ask. Who needs a reputation as the best injury-time side in the world when the previous 80 minutes have left them almost 30 points down the drain? Needless to say, Jim Telfer did not see it quite like that. "It showed we were still playing right at the death, despite the disappointment of seeing a decent first-half performance undermined by unforced errors after the break," said the Scottish coach. "It showed we had the heart to stick to the task and that means something to me."
A past master at constructing silk purses from the sow's ear of Scottish rugby, Telfer was well pleased with his side's harem-scarem disruption of the English machine early on. Roxburgh was quite a handful in the loose, Weir climbed tall and athletically to secure his share of line-out ball and Armstrong brought shovel-loads of grit and a splash of occasional grandeur to the proceedings. "They were hard, hard work during the first half and, although people say we should know what to expect up here, it takes a while just to sort out how the referee is reacting to things," said Dallaglio.
Grayson and Craig Chalmers swapped penalties in the opening quarter and the rival stand-offs matched each other again in the second 20 to leave it all square at the break. If anything, Scotland were the more likely to break free; had it not been for try-saving tackles by Dawson and Matt Perry on Armstrong and Derrick Lee respectively, not to mention a fingertip tap from Neil Back that brought the stampeding Damian Cronin tumbling to terra firma, the underdogs would have been up and snarling.
Cronin played a most peculiar hand - a bizarre mix of Naas Botha and Sir Georg Solti - before being substituted on 53 minutes. If the veteran Wasp cajoled the Murrayfield faithful into belated full voice by waving his arms around like a demented conductor, he also flabbergasted them by kicking away several pieces of prime possession. Telfer did not look remotely amused: while the English supporters were crowing to the tune of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", his own second row was lost in the "Enigma Variations".
SCOTLAND: D Lee (London Scottish); A Stanger (Hawick), G Townsend (Northampton), A Tait (Newcastle), S Longstaff (Dundee HSFP); C Chalmers (Melrose), G Armstrong (Newcastle, capt); D Hilton (Bath), G Bulloch (West of Scotland), P Burnell (London Scottish), D Cronin (Wasps), G Weir (Newcastle), R Wainwright (Dundee HSFP), E Peters (Bath), A Roxburgh (Kelso). Replacements: S Grimes (Watsonians) for Cronin, 53; C Murray (Heriot's FP) for Chalmers, 72.
ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); A Healey (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath), W Greenwood (Leicester), A Adebayo (Bath); P Grayson (Northampton), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), D Ryan (Newcastle), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: A Diprose (Saracens) for Ryan, 69; P de Glanville (Bath) for Healey, 72; D Grewcock (Saracens) for Johnson, 74; D West (Leicester) for Cockerill, 84.
Referee: C Thomas (Wales).