Stuart Lancaster preparing to axe red rose heroes for Six Nations clash against Ireland
England 38 Scotland 18: Crushing victory over Scots leaves England coach with difficult decisions to make
"If it looks like a pig, it's a pig," remarked Scott Johnson, the Scotland coach, after a heavy Calcutta Cup defeat that sent his side spiralling back in time towards the Nightmare Noughties, when they routinely travelled south to Twickenham in glum anticipation of a 20-point pummelling and found their oldest rivals only too happy to oblige.
Johnson was not being offensive towards the English: that particular market had been cornered by Jim Telfer in the build-up to the game. Instead, he was acknowledging that this red-rose victory was every bit as comprehensive as it appeared.
Yet as the Six Nations enters its second week, the England coach Stuart Lancaster is the man contemplating a full in-tray. While Johnson knew exactly what lessons to draw from events in London, where Scotland suffered a 38-18 defeat – "You can dream all you like, but fairytales don't come true: if you don't win the contact area, you're in fantasy land," he said by way of analysis – his opposite number has half a dozen issues to address. Pleasant issues, generally speaking, but tricky ones nonetheless.
Lancaster believes Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling ball, is rolling towards full fitness and will be available for selection against Ireland in Dublin six days from now. As the Leicester centre gave New Zealand the full ten-pin treatment on his last appearance for England, and enjoyed his one previous visit to Lansdowne Road almost as much, there is precious little danger of him being left out.
Who, then, will make way for him? Brad Barritt, the go-to man in defence? Or Billy Twelvetrees, who not only brought the best of himself to Twickenham on debut but also brought a fresh attacking dimension to the midfield with his sliderule running angles and sophisticated off-loads?
"Has Billy given me a selection headache? He has, if I'm honest," said the coach. "My mind drifts quickly towards the next game and I'm thinking it through already. I have my own ideas, but I always talk it through with the other coaches, and more often than not we have the same instinct."
With one of those significant others, the attacking skills specialist Mike Catt, giving Twelvetrees an additional verbal thumbs-up – "Billy did what we asked him to do, and probably a little bit more" – there is plenty of discussion ahead, clearly.
The think tank must also make decisions on two front row roles, both of them positions of strength. Joe Marler, recalled to the starting line-up for the injured Alex Corbisiero, did a very decent job in drawing the scrummaging sting from Euan Murray, the one Scottish tight forward with the capacity to lord it over the hosts, and his party-piece contribution to Chris Ashton's first-half try brought smiles to the mashed-up faces of generations of front-row veterans. But Mako Vunipola's contribution off the bench was eye-catching, albeit against opponents who had spent more time on the back foot than flesh and blood could stand. It was the same story at hooker, where Tom Youngs bristled and bustled through the opening 50-odd minutes before giving way to the more experienced Dylan Hartley, who proceeded to rub Scottish noses in the smelly stuff through the force of his scrummaging and the sheer weight of his tackling.
If the British and Irish Lions were playing a Test tomorrow, Hartley would be far closer than Youngs to a place in the starting team. On the other hand…
Not that it is all sweetness and light, for there are problems in two other positions – important "spine" positions, at that. If England lose Ben Morgan to the ankle injury that restricted him to a mere 45 minutes of rampaging excellence against the Scots, they will feel the lack of him in Dublin. The Gloucester No 8's wrecking-ball treatment of the 17st wing Tim Visser in the opening seconds set the mood and by the time he was led forlornly towards the bench the Scots were sick of the sight of him.
His performance was in stark contrast to that of Ben Youngs at scrum-half. If we are to be hyper-critical in the way Lancaster and his fellow back-roomers undoubtedly will, the Leicester player has grown a little too "hyper" for his own good. Some of the best No 9s in the history of the sport have been hot-blooded, but the very finest exponents of the art were always ice-cold at the core. Youngs is so gung-ho these days, the "gung" too easily turns to gunk.
He may have saved his own bacon by setting sail on an exciting run midway through the third quarter – a solo assault that led directly to a decisive try for Geoff Parling that took England over the hills and far away at 31-11.
The scoring pass was delivered by Owen Farrell, who was quick to identify a shortage of Scottish numbers going left and floated a long, deadly accurate ball off his right hand. It was the act of a player operating at the peak of his powers and it secured him a man of the match award that was his for the taking once Morgan left the fray early.
Farrell burns like the fires of hell when it comes to competitive spirit, but he is as cold as polar ice when he needs to be. In short, he is what the great Lions coach Sir Ian McGeechan would call a "Test match animal". A couple of years back, it seemed as though Ben Youngs was blessed with a rugby temperament in which opposites were similarly balanced. If he can rediscover that equilibrium, England will have a half-back partnership for the ages. Scotland could not match their nearest and less-than-dearest in any of the most meaningful areas, although the full-back Stuart Hogg, architect of their first try and scorer of their second, was good enough for Lancaster to use the word "brilliant" in his connection.
Even though the visitors armed themselves with a hulking great back-row unit featuring heavy-duty flankers in Kelly Brown and Alasdair Strokosch, they could make no sense of life at the breakdown. In retrospect, they would have done better to pick a genuine open-side pilferer and pray that he stayed on the right side of the referee.
"Unless you have a completely dominant set piece, it's very rare in modern rugby that you win a game without winning the collision," said Johnson, returning to his earlier theme.
"We talk about it constantly, but we couldn't do it against this England side."
He might also have added that even if the breakdown battle had been honours even, the hosts could have turned the screw at scrum and line-out. There again, there are only so many home truths a coach can face without reaching for the bottle.
England – Tries Ashton, Twelvetrees, Parling, Care; Conversions Farrell 3; Penalties Farrell 4. Scotland – Tries Maitland, Hogg; Conversion Laidlaw. Penalties Laidlaw 2.
England: A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Saracens), B Barritt (Saracens), W Twelvetrees (Gloucester), M Brown (Harlequins); O Farrell (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Harlequins). Replacements: J Haskell (Wasps) for Morgan 45; D Hartley (Northampton) for T Youngs 53; D Care (Harlequins) for B Youngs 55; M Vunipola (Saracens) for Marler 57; C Lawes (Northampton) for Launchbury 64; D Strettle (Saracens) for Goode 67; T Flood (Leicester) for Twelvetrees 67; D Wilson (Bath) for Cole 70.
Scotland: S Hogg (Glasgow); S Maitland (Glasgow), S Lamont (Glasgow), M Scott (Edinburgh), T Visser (Edinburgh); R Jackson (Glasgow), G Laidlaw (Edinburgh); R Grant (Glasgow), D Hall (Glasgow), E Murray (Worcester), R Gray (Sale), J Hamilton (Gloucester), A Strokosch (Perpignan), K Brown (Saracens, capt), J Beattie (Montpellier). Replacements: D Denton (Edinburgh) for Strokosch 13; R Ford (Edinburgh) for Hall 47; A Kellock (Glasgow) for Hamilton 55; H Pyrgos (Glasgow) for Laidlaw 73; M Evans (Castres) for Hogg 78.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).
spoilt for choice: England's players to ponder
A centre partnership of Billy Twelvetrees and Manu Tuilagi would be great, but England need Brad Barritt's defensive iron in Dublin.
Ben Youngs has the best all-round game, but his reliability is low. The coaches will mull over promoting Danny Care.
Mako Vunipola is looking more impressive by the week, so Joe Marler cannot afford a dip in form. A struggle between near-equals.
Tom Youngs deserves a medal for establishing his Test credentials after his surprise pick, but Dylan Hartley is too good for the bench.
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