Rugby Union: England stagger to victory

Tait and Townsend give Dallaglio's men the runaround but power proves decisive in the end
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England 24 Scotland 21

Tries: Rodber, Luger, Beal Tries: Tait 2, Townsend

Cons: Wilkinson 3 Cons: Logan 3

Pen: Wilkinson

Half-time: 17-7 Attendance: 75,000

THE POLITE but muted applause at the end of a contest in which a mere three points separated the two sides and in which six tries had been scored, spoke volumes for the English public's verdict on their team.

Down the years the Scots have suffered all manner of grievous misfortune at Headquarters - from Richard Sharp's outrageous dummy to Andy Hancock's half-minute of glory. Yesterday, having displayed a capacity for invention and adventure unmatched by their opponents, they can reflect that the three penalties missed by Kenny Logan, none of them easy but all well within range, cost them the victory that over the piece they just about deserved.

They certainly had the outstanding players on the field in Scott Murray, their frail but ferocious lock forward, and John Leslie, the director general of their back play.

But with three tries each, it was the quality of the goalkicking which made the difference and in that department England were manifestly superior. Jonny Wilkinson, at 19 years of age, demonstrated his composure and a fine temperament to kick three conversions and a penalty against Logan's three conversions.

England's performance, apart from the opening quarter in which they scored 14 points without reply, was curiously lacking in passion and, for lengthy spells, direction. Playing as he does for so much of the time with his head down, Mike Catt's running was as aimless as it was predictable. This was all the more unforgivable in view of the fact that Jeremy Guscott, on the few occasions he was offered the time and space, appeared to be in prime form.

Dan Luger was another to catch the eye with his muscular bursts from the left wing. Yet, in fairness to Catt and the other English backs, who as the game progressed looked a mediocre bunch, they were given too little to work off by forwards who were reluctant to employ their physical superiority.

It took them 65 minutes of conventional line-out delivery before they drove up field from this phase of play and, having done it, they promptly scored a try. The Scots, on the other hand, drove to their hearts' content, using Murray, Eric Peters and the battering ram Peter Walton to great effect. It did not help England's cause either that their scrummage, despite its impressive tonnage, could make little impression on the Scots until late in the game.

For the first quarter, however, the question was simply one of: How many? The Scots' shortage of firepower was wincingly evident as the English forwards flew in behind Richard Hill, who made a number of damaging runs early on. Yet no Englishman could match Murray's irrepressible vigour. He even had the satisfaction of seeing off his opposite number Martin Johnson, whose frustration had earlier spilt over into raw violence when he stamped all over the Scot. It was Murray who was on hand to deliver the scoring pass to Alan Tait for the first of his two tries. Murray also did his level best to disrupt the English line-out, being enough of an optimist to challenge for just about every ball thrown.

England's early tactics were clear enough. Using their loose forwards to break the first line of Scotland's cover, they brought Luger in from the left wing and, once behind the front rank of the defence, England's loose forwards were able to make serious dents in the depleted Scottish ranks. Midway through the first half, they were 14 points ahead and one feared for the Scots' sanity as much as for their safety. Another rout similar to the ones which have scarred the 1990s might have done irreparable damage to the Scottish psyche.

Tim Rodber scored the first try after just eight minutes following a series of brutal frontal drives which left only one Scot, Gordon Bulloch, standing in Rodber's path a yard from the line. No contest. Wilkinson, who had shown up well in the opening exchanges, kicked the goal and England were away to a flier.

Scotland suffered a couple of questionable decisions from a referee who, on the day, turned questionable decision-making into an art form. But the second English try had its origins in a Scottish mistake, Gary Armstrong's high kick parallel to the touchline having a shade too much weight and Luger running powerfully in-field on the counter-attack. Wilkinson, Hill and Dawson all handled before Neil Back cleverly engineered an opening for Luger to pirouette along the left touchline before veering in behind the posts to give Wilkinson a simple conversion.

It was at this point that a state of armed neutrality appeared to exist between the sides. The Scots went into shock as England entered a period of quiet contemplation and complacency. Instead of pounding into the Scots and pressing home their undoubted physical advantage, England slackened their grip and, for the remainder of the match, lost the initiative. Wilkinson's penalty on the stroke of half-time provided them with a comfort cushion they scarcely deserved but within seven minutes of the restart Tait, running flat out on to Armstrong's pass, brought them back into the game with his second try.

England roused themselves sufficiently to gain a foothold inside the Scottish half but the build-up to Nick Beal's try owed more to luck than it did to skill and good judgement. Matt Dawson lost possession but Beal shot straight through Scotland's unhinged defence to score underneath the posts.

If Scotland's riposte through Gregor Townsend was also tinged with luck when Catt literally handed him the ball and free passage 40 yards from the line, it was no more than they deserved. In the final frantic minutes, the tiring Scots tried everything they knew to find an opening but none came and for the umpteenth time they leave Twickenham telling the tale of what might have been.

England: N Beal (Northampton); D Rees (Sale), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), J Guscott (Bath), D Luger (Harlequins); M Catt (Bath), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), T Rodber (Northampton), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: D Grewcock (Saracens) for Johnson, 68; K Bracken (Saracens) for Dawson 69.

Scotland: G Metcalfe (Glasgow Caledonians); C Murray (Edinburgh Reivers), A Tait (Edinburgh Reivers), J Leslie (Glasgow Caledonians), K Logan (Wasps); G Townsend (Brive), G Armstrong (Newcastle, capt); T Smith (Glasgow Caledonians), G Bulloch (Glasgow Caledonians), P Burnell (London Scottish), S Murray (Bedford), S Grimes (Glasgow Caledonians), P Walton (Newcastle), E Peters (Bath), M Leslie (Edinburgh Reivers). Replacements: B Pountney (Northampton) for Walton, 55; D Hilton (Bath) for Burnell 70.

Referee: D McHugh (Ireland)