New England, same old Scotland. Less than four months after a World Cup campaign that plumbed such depths of humiliation that the poet Dante would have struggled to invent a circle of hell low enough to accommodate it, a fresh-faced band of Twickenhamites headed north to Edinburgh – so often a graveyard – and earned a taste of heaven. Charlie Hodgson, the much-maligned fly-half picked to start for the first time since 2008, scored the only try and gave his fellow midfielder Owen Farrell, making a hugely assured Test debut, the chance to kick the team to victory.
Hodgson's try was no classic: he laid hands on a clearance kick by his opposite number, Dan Parks, at the very start of the second half and won the race to the rebound. For England, though, it was every bit as sweet as a length-of-the-field masterpiece, and when Farrell (pictured) wrapped things up with a second penalty late on, they celebrated with gusto.
Scotland? They snarled, but they were as toothless as ever. They have not scored a try since their first World Cup game, against Romania, four matches ago. Yesterday they could have run in half a dozen, but the word "could" has never meant a bean in any form of sport. They are, by some distance, both the most generous and profligate team in front-line international rugby.
If "renaissance England", as the former red-rose coach Brian Ashton christened them at the weekend, were feeling their way into a brave new world, they did not let on immediately. The first half-minute or so of the post-Martin Johnson era was distinctly uncomfortable as the Scots went looking for Hodgson, intent on finding out if he was still a reluctant tackler. But for the rest of the first quarter the visitors seemed happy enough and they forced a first scoring opportunity on 13 minutes, when Ben Foden ran back a poor tactical kick from Parks and forced the impressive Scottish No 8, David Denton, into an indiscretion at the ruck.
Farrell took aim from 47 metres but pushed his kick right of the sticks. Was he worried? Why would he be? A bloke by the name of Wilkinson missed his first shot in international rugby – and that was from approximately 30m closer to the posts. He recovered from the experience, just about.
The newcomer was on the scoresheet soon enough anyway, but not until Chris Robshaw, the recently appointed captain, decided to show some leadership by starting a row with Chris Cusiter, the busy little Scotland scrum-half. Robshaw ended up with a torn shirt and spent the next few minutes clad in what amounted to a toga. How the Scots sniggered. It was not the first time they had seen an England skipper stride around Murrayfield with delusions of Caesarism.
When things calmed down, Hodgson hoisted a high kick designed to land somewhere around Scotland's 22-metre line and the Lamont brothers, Sean and Rory, mucked things up so badly that their colleagues had no option but to infringe on the floor. This kick was much easier and Farrell gave his side the lead.
So far, so good for Stuart Lancaster and his interim coaching team. Unfortunately for them, the good turned to bad immediately. Phil Dowson spilled the restart catch for no apparent reason and with the flanker Ross Rennie leading the way, the Scots hammered away until Parks was given the chance to equalise with a short-range penalty.
This signalled a long period of Scottish ascendancy, lasting until the interval. Max Evans, the most dangerous broken-field runner on view, skinned Foden down the left to launch one dangerous assault; the unlikely combination of Richie Gray, Jim Hamilton and Euan Murray – tight forwards all – set up another attack on the opposite side of the field that should have borne fruit. Yet all the home side had to show for their dominance was a second penalty from Parks, conceded by Chris Ashton in contact after an ill-advised scamper off a defensive scrum.
Much of the half had been a grind, if truth be told, but the second period was infinitely more intense after Hodgson and Farrell had given England something to defend. And how they defended. Some of the rearguard action was of the last-ditch variety and the visitors were deeply fortunate not to concede tries on a couple of occasions: first when Greig Laidlaw, on the field for Parks, was adjudged to have been a fingertip away from touching down his own chip-kick ahead of the covering Ben Youngs; then when Rennie broke free of Matt Stevens and Lee Dickson, both new to the fray, only to see his scoring pass to Mike Blair knocked to the ground by Foden.
But some of the hits were of the highest calibre – positively rib-rearranging at times – and were the products of a collective spirit forged in less than a fortnight. It is no mean feat to pull together something meaningful in so short a space of time and Lancaster and Robshaw can take enormous credit for one of English rugby's minor miracles.
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)Reuse content