James Lawton: Red rose wilts as Scots expose perennial problems

There was a crescendo or two, but where was the climactic moment?
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The Independent Online

Every so often history repeats itself here. A claymore is raised and the Sassenachs go down. That, anyway, is the way the English must see it for their own peace of mind.

In 1990 England were ambushed by an eerie uprising of Scottish rugby spirit, a slow march on to the field, and then an astonishingly intense journey to the heart of that mystery which sometimes makes a team play not only out of its skin but its planet. Six years ago, on a day so wild Mel Gibson's Braveheart special effects unit would merely have had to roll the camera, the Scots simply came screaming into the glen.

Here on Saturday we had something else again. We had resistance that would surely have impressed the defenders of Mafeking.

There is just one common link. It is the failure of England to make not even the most but the bare minimum of overwhelming strength.

It meant that the descent from the status of Grand Slam contenders, and a team who might just be assembling the confidence and the coherence required to make viable any hopes of a successful defence of the World Cup next year, could not have been more jarring.

Some argue that England are still a work in progress. If it is true, there seems to be an overwhelming need to check the job specification.

It is, of course, to compete with the depth and the freedom of the New Zealand game which has re-emerged so brilliantly in the last few years. Here such ambition seemed little more than a remote fantasy.

For Andy Robinson and his English coaching staff the obligation was to pay tribute to the extent of Scottish defiance - a reality which blazed out of statistics itemising 112 Scottish tackles made at a completion rate of 94 per cent. But big rugby statistics, like those of a big fight, don't always tell the whole story, and the detail of defeat Robinson will no doubt hammer home to his beaten troops is the nine turnovers yielded to the fierce Scots. In the past such Scottish success in this department was dismissed by the English as mere scavenging. But then, as now, the heart of the matter, as it will always be in such circumstances, was a critical failure of execution by the team able to call on the greater strength.

England's advantage up front was palpable. But so were their problems behind a pack in which Julian White, Steve Borthwick and Danny Grewcock, when he wasn't languishing in the sin bin for a brainless moment, established a vast ascendancy.

This killing disparity came to a dispiriting head when Ben Cohen, a fully fledged World Cup hero, spilt the ball, probably out of sheer surprise at receiving it, with the line beckoning on the point of half-time. That crystallised a classic English problem: an inherent uneasiness at the transfer of forward power into 15-man rugby.

Some days it seems not so much a tactical and strategic challenge as a national flaw - and this was surely one of them.

What was so depressing, given England's vast edge in player population, was the lack of distinction in the creative side of the game. Charlie Hodgson flights a beautiful pass, but most of the time he must have felt like a conductor missing an entire string section. There was nothing wrong with the wind department of course - there rarely is - but where was a crescendo or two, where was the climactic moment? It never came for various reasons and not the least of them was the heroic tackling of the Scottish captain, Jason White.

In England's last, desperate push he stopped Joe Worsley so profoundly you could almost hear a whimper of resignation in the attacking force. Scotland plainly had the moment and the day, if not the future, because how do you conquer the world with scarcely the manpower to assemble a border raiding party? Such dreams can no doubt wait for now. Given the shocking decline being suffered by the image of Scottish rugby right up to the moment of coach Frank Hadden's appointment, victories over France and England, and noble defeat after the dismissal of Scott Murray at the Millennium Stadium, represent not so much a revival as a resurrection.

Hadden's pride, he said, was only underlined by the strength of England's first-half showing. Then, he said, it was evident only performances of the highest character would do. Such came, most stirringly, from the back row of White, Allister Hogg and Simon Taylor - they gave up their bodies and their spirit to the cause and no doubt they will haunt England for some days to come.

Most disturbing, though, to the world champions will surely be the knowledge that they may have been victims of something more than a periodic hazard of playing a rugby nation so dangerously capable of rising up with such terrible vengeance in their hearts. They have reason to worry about a fault line in their make-up. It is to do with a failure of balance, a critical lack of fluency when it comes to seeing off outgunned opponents.

The Welsh were finally put down at Twickenham, but perhaps significantly with killing force only at the time when the fine Martyn Williams was in the sin bin. The Italians were eventually subdued in Rome. But here the prospect of a coup de grâce was always remote. Maybe the Scots would wilt, you thought, but it would be by bludgeon rather than the clean thrust of a rapier wit.

As it was, Chris Paterson's five penalties and an almost swaggering drop goal by Dan Parks were enough to do in England. Hadden, rather obscurely, said that whenever Paterson approaches a kick he feels inclined to call for a Chinese takeaway. Robinson almost certainly did not experience a similar urge. Reflecting on the tangle his team had made of their challenge, a plate of chop suey would surely have been too much.

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