England's new order thrive in the chaos
Scotland 6 England 13: Caretaker coach walks out of Edinburgh wounded but with an international win
It is not the kind of wound to earn a man a Victoria Cross: a
small cut on the left forefinger, it required only a couple of
stitches and will be as right as rain in a few days. Yet Stuart
Lancaster will wear his waterproof plaster with pride: indeed, when
he reflects on the way he could have been scarred by the Scots on
the opening day of the Six Nations Championship, the caretaker
coach of the least experienced England party in recent memory will
wear it with a profound sense of relief. Not to mention a little
gratitude for good measure.
Lancaster, performing match-day duties as an international coach for the first time, opted for the Sphinx-like approach – silent and expressionless, with just the merest hint of a mysterious smile now and then – until Charlie Hodgson charged down a slow-motion clearance kick from Dan Parks at the start of the second half and claimed what turned out to be both the game's only try and its decisive score.
"I jumped up and smacked my hand on the ceiling," the Cumbrian said, by way of explaining his digital laceration. "The best feeling I've had in rugby? Yes, I'd say so." Lancaster also confirmed that he had applied for the job full-time.
Andy Robinson, his opposite number, can rarely have felt worse. The hyper-committed West Countryman tends to be a little rougher on the Murrayfield decor when incarcerated in the coaching booth high above the players' tunnel, to the extent that his short-arm jab to the wall has become as much a trademark punch as Joe Frazier's left hook. On Saturday night, he must have been tempted to reduce the entire stadium to dust, with the aid of a wrecking-ball, a bulldozer and three hundredweight of Semtex. Robinson fell out of love with players who waste opportunities long ago. Now, he is running out of patience with himself.
Will he be back in the daily swing of Premiership rugby by this time next year? It is anything but impossible. Robinson started the weekend as a prime candidate to coach the Lions in Australia in 15 months' time, but he indicated recently that another below-the-fold championship finish with Scotland might result in what the folk at the job centre like to call "career realignment". Such an outcome is now far more likely than not, given that the Scots have only one more home game available to them – against an ominous-looking France – and must travel to Cardiff, Dublin and Rome.
Weirdly, the most eye-catching players on view at Murrayfield were of the blue-shirted persuasion: Max Evans on the wing, Ross Rennie on the openside flank, David Denton, the debutant No 8 who gave England all manner of grief in the loose. More noticeable still, however, were the home side's limitless powers of invention in discovering new ways of not grounding the ball over the opposition line. It is now four whole matches since the Scots registered a five-pointer. A team of celibates would score more often.
Robinson is more aware than anyone of his team's blank-firing capabilities, but he felt more aggrieved than usual on this occasion, insisting that the television match official, Nigel Whitehouse, should have returned a verdict in favour of Greig Laidlaw, whose chip-and-chase into the England in-goal area deep in the second half might have won the game for his side. Yet had Whitehouse done so, most fair-minded observers would have accused him of watching the wrong channel. If Laidlaw's glancing caress of the ball constituted downward pressure, the Pope is a Presbyterian.
There was also the merest whiff of a whinge from the Scots about the way Ben Foden prevented Rennie slipping a scoring pass to Mike Blair, just when the English defensive wall was showing signs of shifting on its foundations. However, Robinson was honest enough not to condemn Foden for doing whatever was necessary. "That's what he's there for," he said. "Foden knew what he was doing, like all good full-backs."
If the coach was seething, there were deeper and better reasons for his anger than a timely exercise in semi-legitimate ball-blocking from England's No 15. Anyway, the visitors performed with such a heightened sense of unity that they could have been forgiven almost anything. They scrummaged well – Alex Corbisiero, the young London Irish prop, was as industrious as any tight forward on the field – and if their line-out malfunctioned under the pressure applied by the supersized Scottish second-row pairing of Richie Gray and Jim Hamilton, there was enough blood-and-guts commitment at the tackle to minimise the damage. Mouritz Botha, the exiled South African making his first international start for his adopted land, went about his work with the zealotry of the convert.
As did his countryman Brad Barritt in the centre, the new captain, Chris Robshaw, in the back row and the recalled wing David Strettle. And then there was Owen Farrell, another debutant. A shade over 20 going on 35, he was not so much cool as refrigerated when asked to pop over the odd kick here and there against opponents who were never going to be more than a few points adrift. Farrell is a fiery sort in contact, but his is the fire that burns like ice. Let us say it now: injury willing, the man-child will win 50 caps minimum and probably many more.
Which takes us back to Lancaster and the word "trust". As the Scots laid siege over the last half-hour and stretched the defensive line to snapping point, the coach looked to the men on replacement duty and wondered which of them had sufficient experience of barricade-manning at Test level to make a difference with the team in extremis. The answer was of the "er, um" variety, but he went for broke by throwing on uncapped players in the contrasting shape of Jordan Turner-Hall, Lee Dickson, Geoff Parling and Ben Morgan. At one point, there were half a dozen Englishmen playing rugby at a level they had not previously encountered. Most of them made an error somewhere, but not a single one of them cracked.
"All the changes were tactical, apart from the decision to take off Charlie Hodgson, who was struggling with his shoulder," Lancaster said. "Scotland used their replacements early and the momentum of the game shifted because of it: there is always an energy balance in a game of rugby and at a point late in the second half, the balance had definitely tipped their way. Did I have any doubts about using the bench? No, there wasn't any doubt. You either trust the players you pick, or you don't. If you don't, you have to ask yourself why you picked them in the first place."
The night before the game, at the team hotel at the bottom of Prince's Street, the coach called together his players. "I wanted them to have those shirts overnight, to go to bed thinking about what it meant," he said. "And I asked Graham Rowntree to hand them out and say a few words. He did it brilliantly, as you'd expect."
Rowntree is the one survivor of the World Cup coaching team – a natural communicator so popular with those who work alongside him that there was never any question of him going the same way as Martin Johnson, John Wells, Brian Smith or Mike Ford. Who knows? He may stick around long enough to see this England turn into the team the last one should have been.
l England's Lee Dickson suffered a fractured metacarpal in his left hand and misses the game with Italy in Rome. He has been replaced in the 32-man training squad by his brother Karl, who plays for Harlequins. Toby Flood also returns.
Scotland: Penalties: Parks 2. England: Try: Hodgson Conversion: Farrell Penalties: Farrell 2.
Scotland: R Lamont (Glasgow); L Jones, N De Luca (both Edinburgh), S Lamont (Scarlets), M Evans (Castres); D Parks (Cardiff Blues), C Cusiter (Glasgow); A Jacobsen, R Ford (capt, both Edinburgh), E Murray (Newcastle), R Gray (Glasgow), J Hamilton, A Strokosch (both Gloucester), R Rennie, D Denton (both Edinburgh). Replacements: G Laidlaw (Edinburgh) for Parks, 58; M Blair (Edinburgh) for Cusiter, 58; A Kellock (Glasgow) for Hamilton, 58; J Barclay (Glasgow) for Strokosch, 58; S Lawson (Gloucester) for Ford, 74; G Cross (Edinburgh) for Murray, 74.
England: B Foden (Northampton); D Strettle , B Barritt, O Farrell (all Saracens), C Ashton (Northampton); C Hodgson (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), M Botha (Saracens), T Palmer (Stade Français), T Croft (Leicester), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), P Dowson (Northampton). Replacements: G Parling (Leicester) for Palmer, 58; J Turner-Hall (Harlequins) for Hodgson, 62; L Dickson (Northampton) for Youngs, 62; M Stevens (Saracens) for Corbisiero, 62; B Morgan (Scarlets) for Dowson, 68; M Brown (Harlequins) for Barritt, 71;
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).
0 Tries 1
0/0 Conversions 1/1
2/2 Penalties 2/4
0/0 Drop goals 0/0 Phases of play7/0 Scrums won/lost 4/0
16/0 Line-outs won/lost 10/1
9 Pens conceded 9
5 Mauls won 2
16 Ruck and drive 10
97 Ruck and pass 34
238 Passes completed 72
3 Line breaks 1
25 Possession kicked 27
5 Kicks to touch 7
62/2 Tackles made/missed 142/16
5 Offloads in tackle 3
16 Total errors made 11
118 In open play 46
33 In opponent's 22 8
32 At set pieces 23
4 Turnovers won 3
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