Lancaster's gait makes it all look like a stroll
England's caretaker appeared unfazed under the spotlight, writes Simon Turnbull at Murrayfield
Sunday 05 February 2012
These are beguiling times for Stuart Lancaster. Just a couple of months ago the Cumbrian farmer's son was going about his business as the Rugby Football Union's head of elite development and coach of the England Saxons. On Friday afternoon he was among the top 10 subjects being searched on Yahoo – alongside Reese Witherspoon, Alice Cooper, Pippa Middleton and rheumatoid arthritis.
Yesterday morning, the man who has stepped into Martin Johnson's shoes and taken charge of the England team – for the time being, at least – was pictured on the front page of The Scotsman, playing alongside Bryan Redpath for Scotland Under-21s against England in 1991. He might be a Scotland old boy but as kick-off time approached yesterday, England's caretaker coach had some difficulty at the home of Scottish rugby, finding himself smack in the middle of the press room while attempting to locate the visiting coaches' box.
By the time the lights had dimmed and the piper had started his pre-match skirl and drone, however, Lancaster was in the glass booth – standing, arms-folded, drinking in the atmosphere, a quiet smile playing on his lips. It is not supposed to be that way for England head coacheson Calcutta Cup day here.
Even for the most experienced of hands, it has become an unnerving test of mettle. More seasoned England sides than the experimental XV who took the field here have crumbled. More seasoned head coaches have come out on the suffering end of the Murrayfield mincer.
Lancaster's three predecessors all failed to win here: Martin Johnson, Brian Ashton and the man in charge of the Scots last night, Andy Robinson. Not since the reign of Sir Clive Woodward had England managed to get a Six Nations win in Edinburgh: a 34-13 success in February 2004.
They were endeavouring to do so yesterday with a trio of debutants – Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and Phil Dowson – and with Charlie Hodgson making a fresh start at 31. Playing from the off for the first time since he went missing in action somewhere in the vicinity of Ma'a Nonu, at Eden Park in 2008, Jonny Wilkinson's old understudy did not exactly get off to a flier, failing to get any meaningful distance with a kick to touch on the right, flinging a pass behind Ben Foden from a promising attacking position and aiming a grubber kick directly down the throat of Rory Lamont.
Still, Dan Parks' loose kicking from hand presented England with a couple of counter-attacking opportunities, the best of which came to nought when Chris Robshaw tried to set Chris Ashton away down the left with a feed so high the great Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon would have struggled to grasp it.
The highlight of the first quarter came when Robshaw, England's captain, locked horns with Chris Cusiter. Surprisingly, given the disparity in height and weight, Scotland's scrum-half came out better. Robshaw came away looking something like Oliver Reed in Castaway, his white jersey all tattered and torn.
The first scoring blow came from Farrell, the debutant landing a penaltyat the second time of asking, but it was the Scots who got into the ascendancy and into a 6-3 half-time lead, courtesy of two Parks penalties. Having worked so hard to gain their advantage, Scotland proceeded to throw it away 29 seconds into the second half. Or to kick it away, to be precise – not that there was any precision about the telegraphed Parks hoof that Hodgson charged down for only his second Six Nations try.
Lancaster – leaning against the side-window of the coaches' enclosure – gave another quiet smile when Farrell landed the conversion. It was the same when Nigel Whitehouse, the television match official, made the call not to award Greig Laidlaw a 63rd-minute touchdown.
It was the same on the final whistle too – after some cussed defending from Robshaw, Barritt and co and some spectacular chance-blowing by Scotland that had Robinson cursing in the home coaches' box. The Scots have a priceless back rower in the dynamic David Denton but they can't buy a try, this being their fourth blank in succession.
"It seems like déjà vu," Robinson lamented. "We've been here before. We've not been able to take the chances we created. It's a frustration that we all feel."
There was none of that for England's caretaker, having swept off to a winning start.
"This is a difficult place to come and win," Lancaster said. "We're delighted to have done so, and with the attitude the players showed, particularly in defence. We're off the mark now. We'll be better for the experience."
It was a long way short of perfection. But it's off to the Italian capital next for England – rumour has it the old place wasn't built in 80 minutes.
How did the new boys get on? Fresh faces make it all white on the night
Might have set something in motion in the first half, but was called back for a marginal forward pass when looking to use an advantage in his own 22. Part of a rush defence that had reason to be grateful to David Strettle rushing in, as well as Scotland's inability to exploit overlaps, he also helped his own backs look dangerous occasionally. Tackled his socks off and went off, with 10 to go.
Rated: 3.5 out of 5
Missed his first kick at goal in Test rugby, a suitably tough one from long range, before potting his second from much closer in. Some of his distribution was a tad static but he was as swift as the rest of the midfield in one promising second-half breakout and he generally looked right at this level, confident enough to try, and just miss, a 51-metre penalty. Got the next one, though, and won it.
Rated: 4 out of 5
If a 400bpm heartbeat hammering in his ears drowned out all thought, it would have been understandable. But the No 8 still seemed too frantic, going too far on a free-kick and dropping a kick-off that led to a levelling of the scores. He won some line-out ball, and considering he was facing the best player on the pitch, David Denton, he did OK, but he was caught at the back of the scrum too often.
Rated: 2 out of 5
One half of a Jones-Evans Scotland wing partnership; Wales today will have the not un-Scottishly named Cuthbert and North. Still, there you are. Made a reasonable fist of it, although he wasn't immune to penalties, knock-ons and so on, and was as liable to aimlessly punt the pigskin as anyone else. Evidently has some pace – his team might have been advised to use it.
Rated: 3 out of 5
Quite what any coach could do about the mistakes England made in the first half would be up for debate, and in any case Lancaster essentially has nothing to lose. However, he – or Graham Rowntree, really – did get the England scrum going pretty well and there was pace, sometimes, in the backs. Brought on his new caps late in the game, which was brave but unavoidable, and won. Job done.
Rated: 3 out of 5
It seems funny that a Scotland coach assisted by Gregor Townsend should be able to get so little out of his backs, but then a) Scotland's backs aren't very good; and b) said Scotland coach will keep picking Dan Parks at No 10. Threw on four substitutes on the hour, including removing Parks. The net result was... not enough of an improvement.
Rated: 2 out of 5 (loses a mark for picking Parks)
By Martin Pengelly
1 Number of times Scotland have won their first match in the Six Nations (2006)
4 Number of games Scotland have now gone without a try
70 Number of England wins in the fixture; Scotland have 42
89 Number of caps won by Scotland's centres before kick-off; England's centres had not won any
8 Number of years since Scotland scored a try against England at Murrayfield
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