One of European rugby's rare beasts – an English Grand Slam – might be spotted in Dublin next weekend: the Six Nations title is virtually in the bag, thanks to the points advantage accruing from the eight-try victory over Italy in round two, and a stern, authoritative performance by the red-rose pack may well bring them all those additional spoils that seemed beyond their grasp at the start of the tournament. But the Irish will have to be as blind as bats not to spot the frailties and fragilities at the heart of Martin Johnson's team, all of which were on public view at Twickenham yesterday. The thing is not done yet.
Another kind of beast – a common or garden fox – threatened to delay the start of this compelling Calcutta Cup encounter. Half the British Army seemed to be surrounding the pitch as the Scots emerged from the tunnel, yet not a man-jack of them knew how to coax the creature away from the field of play, where it had taken up residence some 40 minutes beforehand. Zara Phillips might have had an idea or two, being a horsey type, but she was in the expensive seats and had no immediate access to the pitch. The fox disappeared just before kick-off. The Scots? There was no disappearing act from them. They put themselves in England's faces from the get-go and stayed there for the duration.
Had John Barclay, that wonderfully combative bandit of an open-side flanker, not been given 10 minutes' respite without the option for fiddling with the ball at a ruck beneath his own sticks; had Romain Poite, the referee, not pulled a muscle in his lower left leg during a promising Scottish attack and called a halt to proceedings at the crucial moment; had Jerome Garces, his replacement, not decided that Mark Cueto's scoring pass to Tom Croft was legitimate... had none of these things happened, the visitors might have upset the applecart and won the game. As it was, they had to settle for scaring England witless. Once they get their heads around what happened to them, they will find a degree of solace in that.
Croft's try, scored a few seconds prior to Barclay's return from the sin-bin, came in the first minute of injury time, and it said something for the seriousness of an incident at the start of the second half that there was still the best part of a quarter of an hour left on the clock. The bulk of the delay was caused when Matt Banahan, the brick-outhouse back from Bath, replaced the stricken Mike Tindall and, with his first significant act, knocked the Scotland No 8 Kelly Brown clean into la-la land.
Banahan was in possession of the ball at the time and an unsympathetic sort would say Brown asked for everything he received by going high on so powerful a specimen, but the disciplinary officer will look closely at the contact between the Englishman's right arm and the Scotsman's jaw for on first viewing there was something distinctly dodgy about it. Brown fell like a stone – or rather, given the quality of his defensive performance during the first half, like a rock. He did not get up again. When he left the field, it was on a stretcher.
At this point, the scores were level at 9-apiece, Toby Flood's three penalties having been matched by a couple from Chris Paterson and a sweet drop goal from Ruaridh Jackson. The England forwards had been largely in control, establishing a clear-cut supremacy at the scrum that would last until Geoff Cross replaced Moray Low on the tight-head side of the Scottish front row, and making a proper mess of the opposition line-out, to the extent that the visiting hooker, Ross Ford, approached each throw with the reluctance of an ill-prepared student opening his examination paper.
But my, how the Scots made England suffer in the loose. Time and again, Barclay and his fellow mischief-makers found ways of slowing, then pinching, possession that the favourites seemed to consider theirs by right. There was one highly amusing moment when the red-rose prop Dan Cole, a major contributor to the home cause, reacted to another piece of Barclay pilfering by offering the referee his opinion on the matter. "Thanks for your help," Poite said to the Leicester man, "but I really don't need it."
Brown's premature departure hurt Scotland. Richie Vernon, his replacement, can be a handful in the far-flung acres but as the visitors had opted to keep the game tight rather than kick the ball long to the likes of Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, they could have used the big Saracen's close-quarter expertise for the duration. Indeed, it was Vernon who dropped them in the mire on the hour mark by messing up at the base of one of the few solid scrums put together by his fellow forwards and launching England on the attack that would end with Barclay's yellow-card indiscretion.
Flood kicked the ensuing penalty to give his side a 12-9 lead, but the game was still tourniquet-tight – so tight, in fact, that both Johnson, the England manager, and Andy Robinson, the Scotland coach, appeared on the touchline simultaneously, their faces as black as pitch, to take issue with Poite's refereeing.
It was anyone's game by now, and if England made it theirs, it was by the skin of their teeth. Ashton, supremely dangerous in open field but less than productive outside a centre pairing that created little space and posed next to no attacking threat, suddenly appeared on the shoulder of James Haskell as the big flanker continued an industrious afternoon's work with a strong run from his own 22. A flicked pass to Foden set the full-back haring down the Yellow Brick Road towards the line, but Paterson calculated his angle perfectly and completed one of the great defensive acts of the age.
Yet not even Paterson could reach Foden as the Northampton man set sail down the right later in the piece, and when England moved the ball left, Cueto fed Croft the pass that broke the game open. Was it forward? The visitors had their suspicions. They felt even worse when Johnny Wilkinson nailed the conversion from a horrible position tight to the touchline.
To their credit, the Scots asked themselves whether they had more to give and answered in the affirmative. Max Evans claimed a chip-and-gather try eight minutes into stoppage time. Paterson added the extras, but England knew they were almost home, and when Wilkinson rewarded his forwards' mauling efforts by knocking over the simplest of penalties, there was no path back for the visitors.
England now head across the Irish Sea. They may have won four from four, but win number five will elude them if they fail to take account of the vulnerabilities exposed by Barclay, Paterson and their courageous countrymen.
England Try: Croft. Conversion: Wilkinson. Penalties: Flood 4, Wilkinson.
Scotland Try: Evans. Conversion: Paterson. Penalties: Paterson 3.
England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tindall (Gloucester, capt), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Wood (Northampton), J Haskell (Stade Francais), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: M Banahan (Bath) for Tindall h-t; D Care (Harlequins) for Youngs 62; J Wilkinson (Toulon) for Flood 76; S Thompson (Leeds) for Hartley 76; S Shaw (Wasps) for Deacon 76; T Croft (Leicester) for Wood 76; P Doran-Jones (Gloucester) for Cole 90.
Scotland: C Paterson (Edinburgh); M Evans (Glasgow), J Ansbro (Northampton), S Lamont (Scarlets), S Danielli (Ulster); R Jackson (Glasgow), R Lawson (Gloucester); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), M Low (Glasgow), R Gray (Glasgow), A Kellock (Glasgow, capt), N Hines (Leinster), J Barclay (Glasgow), K Brown (Saracens). Replacements: R Vernon (Glasgow) for Brown 44; G Cross (Edinburgh) for Low 58; D Parks (Cardiff Blues) for Jackson 62; M Blair (Edinburgh) for R Lawson 62; S Lawson (Gloucester) for Ford 76; A Strokosch (Gloucester) for Hines 80; N De Luca (Edinburgh) for Ansbro 86.
Referee: R Poite/J Garces (France).
The match statistics
England 1 Tries Scotland 1
England 1/1 Conversions Scotland 1/1
England 5/6 Penalties Scotland 2/2
England 0/1 Drop goals Scotland 1/2
Phases of play
England 2 Scrums won Scotland 5
England 0 Scrums lost Scotland 1
England 13 Line-outs won Scotland 10
England 1 Line-outs lost Scotland 3
England 8 Pens conceded Scotland 10
England 10 Mauls won Scotland 0
England 17 Ruck and drive Scotland 18
England 73 Ruck and pass Scotland 47
Eng 217 Passes made Scotland 123
England 6 Line breaks Scotland 0
Eng 21 Possession kicked Scot 28
England 5 Kicks to touch Scotland 9
Eng 91 Tackles made Scot 128
Eng 0 Tackles missed Scotland 6
Eng 18 Offloads in tackle Scotland 9
Eng 18 Total errors made Scotland 5
England 100 In open play Scotland 65
Eng 20 In opponent's 22 Scot 21
England 25 At set-pieces Scotland 23
England 3 Turnovers won Scotland 4
Table and fixtures
* Results so far: Wales 19 England 26,
Italy 11 Ireland 13,
France 34 Scotland 21;
England 59 Italy 13,
Scotland 6 Wales 24,
Ireland 22 France 25;
England 17 France 9,
Italy 16 Wales 24,
Scotland 18 Ireland 21;
Italy 22 France 21,
Wales 19 Ireland 13,
England 22 Scotland 16.
* Remaining fixtures: Saturday France v Wales, Ireland v England, Scotland v Italy.Reuse content