James Lawton: Banahan's punch revives English Grand Slam hopes
Talk of a serious World Cup challenge later this year seem nothing more than wild optimism
Monday 14 March 2011
Despite some rather emphatic death notices, Scottish rugby is, after all, still alive and showing rather too many vital signs for the serene health of England's Grand Slam pretensions.
Rugby revolutions are, like most any other sort, rarely seamless. However, the one England's Martin Johnson has been fashioning since last autumn threatened to do more than shed a stitch or two at Twickenham yesterday. But for the rather harsh dismissal of Scottish flanker John Barclay to the sin bin at a pivotal stage, there might have been a wholesale unravelling.
As it was, Ireland, no doubt still raging at the iniquity of Wales's illegal winning try in Cardiff, can only have had their appetite for action at Lansdowne Road next week raised to a lipsmacking level. England may hope to return from Dublin with the Grand Slam but on yesterday's evidence their first task is to stop a horrible slide back into futility.
Zara Phillips did not seem amused by the withdrawal of her fiancée, England captain Mike Tindall, especially before it was clear that the move was provoked by injury, but the arrival of his understudy, Matt Banahan, certainly sharpened England's capacity to attack with serious purpose.
He was a source of genuine power and penetration – something England had cried out for as Scotland reached half-time in a 9-9 deadlock and with plenty of reasons to believe in their chances of pulling off one of the true shocks of modern rugby.
In the end, England did manage to cross the tryline but the breakthrough came in the last seconds of Barclay's exclusion. And if the execution was provided by an unstoppable substitute, Tom Croft, we again had a moment of less than rugby perfection with a strong suspicion that the vital pass was forward.
But Scotland were not done – and certainly not prepared to concede that as a serious rugby nation they were about to disappear down the dusty high road of history. Earlier, Chris Patterson had made this point with a magnificent tackle at the corner on a speeding Ben Foden and then when Barclay returned to the action Scotland came within three points of the unlikeliest triumph.
Max Evans scored a try filled with craft and wit and it required super-sub Jonny Wilkinson to boot England into a six-point lead that gave them just enough breathing space.
Johnson looked relieved but then to be fair to him he has shown some dogged resistance to the idea that England's chariot had been acquiring some irresistible properties. Yesterday the wheels squeaked too often to make talk of a serious World Cup challenge later this year seem anything more than wild optimism.
No doubt England have made some significant strides in the last six months but it is idle to think that mere fine-tuning will smooth out the worries sure to rise out of this performance. Some serious re-structuring is also required.
It should start in the midfield, where Banahan's arrival signalled a sharp leap in potency. He also put out of the game one of Scotland's best players, number eight Kelly Brown.
He stepped into the Bath juggernaut's path and paid with a worrying spell on the ground until being taken off on a stretcher. Reports that he was conscious and that he had free movement no doubt lifted rugby hearts all the way to Scotland.
The good news was that Brown and his team-mates will surely make a bonny fight another day. For England there was that unequivocal warning. It says that to beat Ireland they must rediscover the best of themselves. Certainly the search at Twickenham was not encouraging.
Man for man marking
Ben Foden - Flashes of form. Took a brilliant tackle by Paterson to stop him from scoring 6
Chris Ashton - More room after break but lassoed by Paterson when got a sniff of the line 6
Mike Tindall - Hampered by ankle problem. Struggled to make an impact before making way for Banahan 5
Shontayne Hape - Vitally ran the ball when England made mess of defensive line-out 5
Mark Cueto - Brilliantly drew two defenders before feeding scoring pass to Croft 6
Toby Flood - Carrying ankle problem and not at his sharpest. Still, kicked four penalties 6
Ben Young - Spent most of first-half trying to locate Chris Ashton. Not his most fluent performance 5
Alex Corbisiero - Steady again on the loosehead side. Becoming a rock in the front row 7
Dylan Hartley - Another solid display. Subtle pass almost put in Wood for a score 7
Dan Cole - Another sterling shift at the coal-face by the tighthead 7
Louis Deacon - A typical Ronseal performance from the no-nonsense Tiger 6
Tom Palmer - Helped to undermine Scots at line-out time. Conspicuous in the loose too 6
Tom Wood - Almost got in for a try before half-time6
James Haskell - England's stand-out performer. Typical charge almost put Ashton away 8
Nick Easter - Great out of side-door feed almost put Ashton in early in second half 7
Best off bench
Tom Croft - In right place at right time for the try 6
Chris Paterson - Try-saving tackle on Foden and another one on Ashton. Fine display 7
Simon Danielli - Former England schoolboy wing worked hard in defence and tirelessly about the field 6
Joe Ansbro - Lively and hungry for the ball. Shored up midfield impressively with Lamont 7
Sean Lamont - Put himself about in defence and attack. Tidily too. Looking part at centre 7
Max Evans - Great wedge chip and collect for the try from the former golf pro 6
Ruaridh Jackson - Struggled with his kicking out of hand early on but landed fine 35-metre drop goal 5
Rory Lawson - Sharp and assured. Might have broken his try duck but for a knock-on 6
Allan Jacobsend - Not the best of days at scrum-time 5
Ross Ford - Badly wayward with his throwing 4
Moray Low - Endured a hard shift at the coal face 5
Richie Gray - Set tone with clattering tackle on Tindall. Tireless worker 7
Alastair Kellock - Captain tackled well but struggled to make an impact in the line-out 6
Nathan Hines - Veteran lock-cum-flanker tackled his socks off 6
John Barclay - Halted Hape and Palmer early in second half. Unlucky yellow 6
Kelly Brown - Sterling defensive work until floored by the Banahan battering ram 6
Best off bench
Richie Vernon - Got straight into the groove knocking back white shirts when he replaced Brown 6
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