Back-row blues leave Johnson at boiling point
Scotland 15 England 15: Cole is only ray of light as English forwards are given a mauling
Steve Borthwick, widely suspected to have been programmed with human speech software that prevents him saying what he really thinks about this exasperating England business, finally gave voice to his innermost thoughts by admitting to "an empty feeling". Martin Johnson used a variety of f-words – he described the game as "fractured and frustrating" – while politely avoiding the one that would have best helped him sum up his mood. And Andy Robinson? He claimed to have been royally entertained by the first Calcutta Cup draw in more than two decades, leaving most Scots wondering whether their coach should get out more.
In fact, Robinson was perfectly justified in arguing that the Murrayfield stalemate had been more engrossing than his after-match questioners appeared to believe, just as it was entirely reasonable for him to punch the wall of his viewing booth high in the stadium's East Stand in response to some boneheaded decision-making, and completely legitimate for him to wonder how England spent the entire game with a full complement of 15 men on the field. Two poor sides – even two poor sides having an off-day – can generate tension as easily as two good ones. The oldest foes in international rugby proved that much, if nothing else.
Johnson also felt like throwing a bunch of fives at the nearest inanimate object, but he is constructed on a different scale to Robinson and found it impossible to get in a proper swing. "Those coaches' boxes are a bit on the small side," he acknowledged with a mournful smile. It was his only smile of the day. The England manager seemed more depressed with life than at any time this season.
"I dare say Andy has been in here suggesting his side should have won," he remarked, knowing full well Robinson had done just that. Significantly, Johnson did not go on to dispute this assessment, even though he had seen Toby Flood fail with two long-range shots – the first a penalty, the second an attempted drop-goal – that would have decided the argument in the visitors' favour. Whatever the credibility issues confronting a manager whose claims of "progress" stretch credulity further than dear old Hattie Jacques stretched her own knicker elastic, he knows his onions when it comes to forward play. The Scottish back-row trio, working together as one, did everything but win the game with their domination of the loose exchanges.
The "three Bs" – Kelly Brown, John Barclay and Johnnie Beattie – have it in them to lift Scotland a couple of notches ahead of next year's World Cup in New Zealand. Beattie left the visiting forwards for dead: far from the biggest No 8 on God's earth, he compensates for his shortcomings in the avoirdupois department through a potent combination of pace and instinct, underpinned by the full range of handling skills. The Scots are in no obvious danger of tripping the light fantastic outside the scrum, although the scrum-half Chris Cusiter and the centre Graeme Morrison out-threatened their opposite numbers here. But if they can go even some of the way towards finishing the things their loose forwards have a fast-developing habit of starting, they will not spend too much longer breast-beating their way though the international programme.
According to the official facts and figures, the Scots turned over English possession on five occasions while not conceding a single ball of their own. These statistical outpourings frequently smack of hogwash, but there was no doubting the Scottish back-row supremacy, just as it had been impossible to argue against the Irish unit's hands-down victory over England a fortnight previously. Johnson has serious problems in an area that seemed the least of his problems at the start of the championship, and this coming weekend's meeting with the French is unlikely to lighten the load.
Robinson took the view that his side would have had more reward for the efforts of Beattie and company had the South African official Marius Jonker refereed the breakdown in the way he had indicated during the run-up to the game. If he set the right tone early on, he was so lenient with English transgressors as the match unfolded that he might have been mistaken for Lord Longford. "I think he could and should have been stronger," the Scotland coach said when questioned about Jonker's reluctance to point people in the direction of the sin-bin.
There was not much to recommend Jonker's approach to the set-piece, either. Mark Lawrence, his fellow South African, controlled this most difficult of areas with great authority during the England-Ireland game, and as a result, there were precious few collapses. On Saturday, there were resets galore: most scrums took the best part of 90 seconds to complete, if they were completed at all, and one dragged on for the best part of three minutes. The true rugby aficionado may see scrummaging as a thing of beauty, but as the poet might have said had he been in a different frame of mind, not even beauty is a joy when it goes on forever and a day.
Even so, Dan Cole at tight-head prop provided a profoundly hacked-off Johnson with a reason to be cheerful. "Dan is fast developing into a top-class international forward," said the manager, and he was right. As well as asking some testing questions in the darkened recesses, he carried the ball strongly into contact and, a couple of minutes shy of the hour, pulled off a try-saving tackle on Cusiter just as the Scottish captain was scuttling towards the line. Three starts into his Test career, the newcomer is an automatic choice.
Which was more than could be said for Delon Armitage, the England full-back, who left the pitch so slowly on being substituted by Ben Foden that he risked being lapped by a superannuated snail. His negative body language was not lost on Johnson, who commented sharply on the subject by saying: "It was no good us waiting too long to make the change. We needed a spark, some tempo in our game, so we felt it right to get Ben involved. He gave us some momentum. As far as Delon is concerned, we think we can get more out of him. He knows it himself, which is why he's disappointed." On the basis of that, it will be surprising indeed if Armitage starts in Paris.
Ugo Monye's chances of making that date must be close to zero. The wing finished second-best in a collision with Brown, left the field in a neck brace and was taken to hospital for an X-ray before being discharged into the care of the England medical team. Jonny Wilkinson also took a heavy blow – the contest, as ferocious as it was unsophisticated, took a heavy toll on its participants – and while he may be declared fit for the trip across the water, England were more dangerous with Flood loading the bullets for the outside backs, of whom Foden looked the most lively.
For all that, a tryless draw was pretty much what the game merited. Scotland, missing three of their best attacking runners through injury, will surely improve. England? They were the same old same old. And this time, they cannot even blame the Edinburgh weather.
Scotland: Penalties Parks 4; Drop-goal Parks. England: Penalties Wilkinson 3, Flood 2.
Scotland: H Southwell (Stade Français); S Lamont (Scarlets), N De Luca (Edinburgh), G Morrison (Glasgow), M Evans (Glasgow); D Parks (Glasgow), C Cusiter (Glasgow, capt); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), E Murray (Northampton), J Hamilton (Edinburgh), A Kellock (Glasgow), K Brown (Glasgow), J Barclay (Glasgow), J Beattie (Glasgow). Replacements: N Hines (Leinster) for Hamilton 53; A MacDonald (Edinburgh) for Brown 60; R Lawson (Gloucester) for Cusiter 70; S Lawson (Gloucester) for Ford 75; S Danielli (Ulster) for Southwell 78; G Cross (Edinburgh) for Jacobsen 82; P Godman (Edinburgh) for Parks 83.
England: D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale), M Tait (Sale), R Flutey (Brive), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), J Haskell (Stade Français), J Worsley (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: T Flood (Leicester) for Wilkinson 44; B Foden (Northampton) for Armitage 51; B Youngs (Leicester) for Monye 63; S Thompson (Brive) for Hartley 71; L Moody (Leicester) for Haskell 71; C Lawes (Northampton) for Deacon 85.
Referee: M Jonker (SA).
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