Hodge torment as England turn the screw

Scotland 3

  Penalty: Hodge

England 29

  Tries: Robinson 2, Tindall, Cohen

  Cons: Wilkinson 2, Hodgson

  Penalty: Wilkinson
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The Independent Online

When Ian McGeechan recalled Duncan Hodge to national colours for the umpteenth time and asked him to plot a second successive English defeat at Murrayfield, the Edinburgh outside-half's public reaction was shoulder-shruggingly philosophical. As of this moment, Hodge probably has more of a future as a philosopher than he does as a Test stand-off; not to put too fine a point on it, he must feel like boarding the first available flight to the Himalayas and contemplating what little is left of his sporting world from some remote mountain-top. The summit of K2 sounds about right.

Having scored all 19 of his country's points when England were famously denied a Six Nations Grand Slam at this ground in the last game of the 2000 tournament, Hodge was given every opportunity to inflict a similar degree of agony on the visitors at the weekend. On this occasion, he could not have claimed a free holiday at a timeshare presentation. Hodge missed three first-half penalties, two of them entirely straightforward, not to mention an absolute gimme from in front of the sticks late on.

He also fluffed a very kickable drop goal, and would have gifted an interception try to Will Greenwood had not the referee, the excellent New Zealand official Steve Walsh, taken pity on him and awarded a penalty for a less-than-obvious English offside. As if to underline his determination to hand the opposition a record winning margin their performance barely justified, Hodge then aimed a clearance kick straight at Danny Grewcock, thereby paving the way for Ben Cohen's confident injury-time finish in the left corner. As a result of all this, a potentially tight encounter ended up 29-3 to the Six Nations champions. Weird.

"A 26-point victory and four tries to none? We'd have settled for that before kick-off," smiled Clive Woodward, the England coach. Too right. Woodward would have settled for 29-28, had there been a guarantee attached. The Scottish forwards – Jason White and Stuart Grimes in particular, aided and abetted by Simon Taylor and Scott Murray – gave Martin Johnson's pack all the trouble they could handle. "It was bloody hard work out there, I can tell you," acknowledged Johnson, who was forced to cram a 24-seven shift into 80 minutes simply to keep the home pack at bay.

McGeechan, quite the most acute analyst of the British coaching fraternity, had reminded his players before kick-off that international rugby was about "the now, not the later", and the margin of this defeat – considerably greater than the 18-point Calcutta Cup hidings suffered by the Scots in Edinburgh in 1921 and 1992 – wounded him.

Even so, he must have drawn sustenance from the way his coal-face merchants pulled themselves together after a scratchy first quarter at scrum and line-out and spent the rest of the afternoon disrupting the rhythm of Johnson and company. Scotland out-drove the English forwards in the loose, and exerted such control that it took them in excess of an hour to concede a penalty.

"Really, there was nothing between the sides in so many areas of the game," the three-time, twice-victorious Lions coach said. "We managed to get our driving game going, and we got our runners going. But what matters is what you do when you find yourselves in good positions. England are some side when they are without the ball – they slowed our possession and, as usual, proved themselves extremely capable at determining when we would recycle the ball from the breakdowns – but more than that, they did what they had to do in terms of finishing."

There is no finisher in world rugby quite like Jason Robinson, whose double-whammy contribution in the first quarter put England so far ahead of the game that the Scots could have played like world-beaters for the concluding hour and still ended with Sweet Fanny Adams to show for their efforts.

Like an Olympic sprinter, Robinson has the knack of springing from his blocks on the "B" of the bang, and if his midfield distributors hit him on the overlap, as Austin Healey and Mike Tindall did in the opening stages of this contest, the most advanced defence systems are rendered obsolete. Phil Larder, England's renowned defensive strategist, might conceivably have some idea how Mr W Whizz Esq might be neutralised. There again, it is not his problem.

If the Scots could not contain Robinson in open field, they were not noticeably more successful in restricting the activites of Greenwood in the more heavily populated areas of a wet and stodgy Murrayfield paddock. The subtle and sophisticated Harlequin contributed to both early tries – has English rugby ever produced a better passer of the ball in contact? – and Woodward's decision to re-locate him in his optimum position of inside-centre at the expense of Mike Catt was vindicated long before the half-time break. "I assumed I would get much more stick on the Catt issue," the manager had said on the eve of the game. He will certainly take some hammer if he so much as dreams of moving Greenwood elsewhere.

Had the miserable Hodge been in any sort of form, England might have suffered for their failure to lay a meaningful hand on the ball for 30 minutes in the middle of the match. As it was, the visitors could afford to lose Kyran Bracken at the interval and negotiate the entire second period with the least experienced scrum-half ever to wrap himself in the white shirt. The minuscule Nick Duncombe, 20 going on 12, had played only three senior matches for Quins before receiving the Woodward summons, and he confessed that he and his family had been rather taken aback by recent events. Indeed, it is likely that he received an ear-wigging from his mother on Saturday night – something along the lines of: "What were you thinking of, young Nicholas? I send you down to the shops, and you end up on the telly."

In truth, Duncombe struggled to make the remotest sense of the hurly-burly immmediately after the break: he was comprehensively wiped out by the strapping Grimes in one of the great physical mis-matches in rugby history, and it was not until Tindall put England out of sight by following up his own kick and taking advantage of Glenn Metcalfe's fragility at full-back that he felt able to relax. But the newcomer is a resilient little so-and-so: he suffered a broken neck during an England-Wales under-18 international at Chester a couple of years back – doctors initially put him on the critical list – and his recovery is, and will remain, one of the more extraordinary features of this rugby age.

Cohen's current purple patch is fairly remarkable, too, given the circumstances. Distracted by a traumatic court case resulting from death of his father – three railway workers were cleared of manslaughter last week, but convicted of violent disorder – the Northampton wing still showed enough in training to secure a starting place, and justified Woodward's faith with a typically decisive finish to round off the proceedings. "I needed that try so badly," he admitted afterwards. Good on him.

SCOTLAND: G Metcalfe (Glasgow); B Laney (Edinburgh), J McLaren (Glasgow), G Townsend (Castres), C Paterson (Edinburgh); D Hodge (Edinburgh), B Redpath (Sale); T Smith (Northampton), G Bulloch (Glasgow), M Stewart (Northampton), S Murray (Saracens), S Grimes (Newcastle), J White (Glasgow), A Pountney (Northampton, capt), S Taylor (Edinburgh). Replacement: G Graham (Newcastle) for Smith, 62.

ENGLAND: J Robinson (Sale); A Healey (Leicester), M Tindall (Bath), W Greenwood (Harlequins), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Bristol), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), B Kay (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps). Replacements: N Duncombe (Harlequins) for Bracken, h-t; D Grewcock (Bath) for Kay, 69; I Balshaw (Bath) for Tindall, 72; J Leonard (Harlequins) for White, 75; C Hodgson (Sale) for Wilkinson, 82.

Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand).

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