England vs Scotland: Wasteful England running out of time to find clinical edge for George Ford's creativity

Jonathan Joseph, who plays alongside Ford in the Bath midfield, is fully tuned into the idea that rugby is a whole lot easier when the ball is made to do at least some of the work

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The Independent Online

Remember the old joke about the millionaire rapscallion who spent half his fortune on wine, women and song… and squandered the rest? The latest evidence from this captivating Six Nations tournament suggests that England, such a miserly lot for most of their Test history, have suddenly succumbed to the temptations of high-rolling extravagance, just when cold-hearted efficiency is the name of the game.

If Australia were unusually generous to their hosts in frittering away try-scoring opportunities in November – there is precious little chance of them being as profligate when they return on World Cup business this autumn – that performance seemed Scrooge-like in its parsimony when set against events on Calcutta Cup day.

The last time Twickenham saw waste on the industrial scale witnessed on Saturday, demolition contractors had just sent a wrecking ball the size of Billy Vunipola into the old South Stand.

Luther Burrell, Jack Nowell and, perhaps less culpably given his lowly footballing status as a mere front-row forward, Tom Youngs – each was guilty of butchering a clear-cut chance in the first hour of the contest. By way of rubbing it in, George Ford and James Haskell both delivered passes of the forward variety with five-pointers begging to be completed. As a consequence, England had to wait until the 76th minute to nail down their 25-13 victory over a willing, but overmatched, Scotland side.

Weirdly, it was the visitors – forced to play fast and loose with scraps of possession – who were the more accurate. Finn Russell, the young Glasgow outside-half with ideas oozing from every pore, may have started in harem-scarem fashion, throwing two passes to the Invisible Man in the same early attack, but for all the flaws in his game management, Scotland looked the more polished attacking act as the first half unfolded.

 

They would have been beaten twice over by the interval had England been even vaguely precise in their work. Instead, they turned round three points to the good. All this sent Stuart Lancaster’s eyebrows into orbit.

“If you look at the All Blacks,” he said, “you generally find that when they create a chance, they end up scoring. We lacked composure at times – there were moments when we failed to show patience.

“You don’t have to pull the trigger straight away. If it’s not on immediately, you can always go through another phase and strike next time. To make 12 clean line breaks and convert only three of them…” There was no need for him to complete that last sentence.

Of course, the head coach would have liked it even less had England drawn a blank on the creativity front and been forced to fall back on penalties – the kind of thing that used to happen all too frequently against the Scots. But with a playmaker as potent as Ford calling the shots at No 10, there is no obvious prospect of them revisiting the barrenness of old. The challenge now is to piece together an attacking game that maximises Ford’s God-given gifts rather than minimises them.

Jonathan Joseph, who plays alongside Ford in the Bath midfield, is fully tuned into the idea that rugby is a whole lot easier when the ball is made to do at least some of the work. So too is another Recreation Grounder, the wing Anthony Watson. But with a non-passing full-back like Mike Brown in the side, England are crying out for a “second ball player” at inside centre. Whatever Burrell is, he isn’t one of those.

When Bath were playing their best rugby before Christmas, they had Kyle Eastmond operating between Ford and Joseph. For whatever reason – presumably one of defensive frailty linked to inadequate size – Eastmond is not in the selectors’ current thinking. Heaven knows, he could not even find a way into the second-string midfield during last week’s full-contact training session, having been beaten to a place by that celebrated titan of the union code, Sam Burgess.

Meanwhile, the Gloucester captain Billy Twelvetrees spent the whole of Saturday on the bench, twiddling his taped-up thumbs. Twelvetrees has some very fierce critics, at least one of them inside the red rose coaching set-up, but it is surely worth remembering that when he is on the field, England tend to score. Since his debut – against Scotland in 2013, coincidentally enough – he has started only 13 of his country’s 26 international matches. Of the 62 tries over that stretch, he was on the field for 37 of them.

There are other options, but neither Brad Barritt of Saracens nor Manu Tuilagi of Leicester is noted for their artistry with ball in hand. Maybe England are waiting on Henry Slade, the uncapped youngster from Exeter, who, frustratingly enough, plays everywhere bar inside centre while looking uncannily like an inside centre. If so, they cannot wait much longer. There are only four games left between now and the World Cup, and three of those are friendlies.

Perversely, it was the Scots who left Twickenham with a clearer idea of how they might approach things at the global gathering in September. “We have to learn to take confidence from what we’re generating for ourselves – we have to believe a bit more – but these are things we can develop,” said their coach, Vern Cotter. “I think we can develop a harder edge, too.” If this happens, Scotland’s route to the World Cup knock-out stage, via victories over Samoa and Japan, will look a whole lot easier than England’s, who must find a way past at least one of Australia and Wales.

England had their moments on Saturday: the Ford-Joseph link-up for the opening try on four minutes was sugar-sweet in its execution; some of the handling by the forwards in the build-up to later scores from Ford and Nowell – the loose-head prop Joe Marler and the blind-side flanker Haskell in the first instance; the tight-head prop Kieran Brookes in the second – was a joy to behold.

But that’s the point. When a couple of front-rowers throw more killer passes than a majority of the back-liners, questions must be asked. And the time for answers is fast disappearing.

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