Auld enemy teach new England a lesson

Jubilant Scots summon supreme resolve to leave Woodward's dilettantes wallowing in the swamp
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The Independent Online

There was always a suspicion that, whoever won the Calcutta Cup, Bill McLaren would not be the only man to be awarded the freedom of Scottish rugby at Murrayfield yesterday. Just 20 minutes after the veteran commentator had shaken the hand of the Princess Royal in a centre-circle ceremony, Lawrence Dallaglio staked his claim for honours when he jumped off the back of a five-yard scrum and scooted through an acre of space to touch down between the posts. That, for sure, was being given the freedom of Scottish rugby. And as Johnny Wilkinson slotted the conversion, you could practically hear the England management purring.

But when Clayton Thomas blew the final whistle, there were 15 far more credible candidates, led by a coach, Ian McGeechan, who had taken his side from defeat in Rome against the tournament debutantes to victory against a squad widely believed to be on their way to matching the world's best. Yet again, the championship had displayed its fondness for rewarding the willing underdog.

This was a match that presented the other side of rugby, the side that does not have much appeal to the marketing men. The fanfares and fireworks which prefaced the kick-off were as irrelevant as a cherry on a haggis. As the temperature plunged, the pitch turned into a lake, and steam rose off the beast with many backs, this was northern hemisphere rugby, and then in excelcis. The sort of affair that separates the rugger buggers from the dilletantes.

Not surprisingly, Clive Woodward was in a state of mild shock. He must be getting used to it. Having been toppled in injury time at Wembley when on the brink of a Grand Slam this time last year, and then seeing his team deprived of a place in the World Cup semi-finals by a freakish royal flush of drop goals in October, he could be forgiven for believing that the gods are providing him with a series of tests of character intended to prepare him for something very special.

Four steps forward, one step back. That was his mantra last night. "The Scots played very well and we didn't cope," he said. "It's difficult to take. We've just got to learn the lessons and move on."

He will need to determine whether those lessons are to do with technique or with a commitment to competition which, given England's performance against France a few weeks ago, few would previously have questioned.

Scotland's win yesterday was certainly more convincing than Wales's smash-and-grab effort of 12 months ago. Nobody had given McGeechan's mob a prayer - except the England players, as Matt Dawson was quick to remind us. But after competing effectively enough to be within a point of parity at half-time, the Scots came out for the restart in a mood to boss the rest of the match.

The second half was played in the sort of conditions which naturally favour the underdog. And for half an hour, England gave an impersonation of a Derby favourite invited to tackle the Grand National. If this can be said without impugning the all-round excellence they displayed in their earlier matches, the men in white looked for a while as though they just didn't fancy it.

Perhaps there was a subconscious belief that this was not the sort of game for which they had been prepared. Their natural enemies, they have come to think, are the giants of the warm-weather nations, who play their game on hard grounds and with the sun on their backs. England's game is built around slickness of foot and hand, around speed and efficiency, and - it has to be said - around a belief in their own superiority, a tribal assumption which Woodward may be no more able to shake than his predecessors were.

These technical and temperamental qualities were virtually useless in the second half yesterday, when prudence, humility and tactical nous were at a premium. Endlessly pressed back on their own 22 by supremely resolute opponents, England had no idea of how to break from Scotland's grip. In cold and wet conditions, there will always be handling errors. But England had no plausible alternative strategy. And it was in this phase of the game that we glimpsed some of Mike Catt's old vulnerabilities - the ambitious cross-field kick that failed to find touch and the high punt to nowhere in particular, both of which returned the initiative to the home team at a time when England were desperate to retain possession and rebuild morale.

As a spectacle, it was a mess. As a contest, it was completely enthralling. The inaugural Six Nations' Cham- pionship has turned out to be just as satisfyingly unpredictable as its predecessor, and although England finish it as champions, the sweetest memory will forever belong to the Scots, who reminded us that the only game which matters is the one you find yourself playing today.


15 min Wilkinson misses penalty, 0-0 16 Hodge misses penalty, 0-0 21 Hodge penalty, 3-0 23 Dallaglio try, 3-5 24 Wilkinson conversion, 3-7 27 Wilkinson penalty, 3-10 35 Hodge penalty, 6-10 40 Hodge penalty, 9-10 60 Hodge penalty, 12-10 74 Hodge try, 17-10 75 Hodge conversion, 19-10 79 Wilkinson penalty, 19-13