Scotland 18 England 12: White destroys English attempt at 'sexy rugby'

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Fifteen years ago, England lost a World Cup final to Australia because the decision-makers got their tactics round their necks and were asphyxiated by their own stupidity. On Saturday evening at Murrayfield, that dungeon of the red rose spirit, a possible Grand Slam went west for precisely the same reason. The Six Nations leaders did all the things their former captain, Martin Johnson, had publicly begged them not to do. England did not ignore Johnson when he was playing - they would not have dared. Why they should suddenly start now is one of the mysteries of the age.

Johnson was a supremely intelligent captain who made a virtue of simplicity. If there were no footballers in his team, he made no attempt to play football. If the only qualities at his disposal were those of size and brawn and muscle, he ordered his charges to pummel the living daylights out of his opponents until they were tired of pummelling, and then pummel them some more. The moment he grabbed his enemy by the balls, he was 99 per cent sure their hearts and minds would follow. Last week, he advised his successors to think along very similar lines.

English hands were indeed applied to the most sensitive Scottish pressure points during this latest, thoroughly compelling episode of rugby's longest-running series. Andrew Sheridan and Julian White scrummaged so powerfully that their opposite numbers spent the entire game viewing the night sky from a vantage point uncomfortably close to their own buttocks, while Steve Borthwick's effective management of the line-out produced enough quality possession to sink an entire fleet of battleships. A half-decent kicking game would have incarcerated the Scots in their own 22 and subjected them to 80 minutes' worth of the hardest labour known to the sporting world. A lifetime spent breaking rocks with a stick of celery would have been bliss by comparison.

What happened? England followed the "sexy rugby" route to nowhere and ended up with their knickers round their ankles, stripped bare by a Scottish defence constructed on the twin pillars of iron commitment and immense courage. It was unnecessary, unfathomable, un-everything. Had England consciously concocted a game plan designed to make the Scottish loose forwards look even better than they are - and they are quite good enough without help from outside - they could not have made a better job of it. Jason White, Ally Hogg and Simon Taylor laughed all the way to the bank at the weekend, and are probably wetting themselves still.

White, a captain leading from the front with his ton-of-bricks tackling style, had himself a high old time. The longer England kept the ball in hand, the more he lapped it up. If his final, climactic hit on Joe Worsley in the closing seconds - the athletic Wasps flanker was horizontalised with a capital "H" as he lunged into the Scottish 22 - defined his performance, it was merely one of many. Hogg and Taylor were not exactly backwards in coming forwards either, and if Hogg lives to be 100 (or see his country win a World Cup, which probably amounts to the same thing) he will never again pilfer as much English possession as he did here.

Turnovers were at the very heart of England's misery. The home side were officially credited with nine, which seemed way short of the mark - "Was that nine in the first half, or the second?" quipped the injured Gregor Townsend, perhaps the most gifted Scottish midfielder of his generation, as the after-match celebrations gathered speed - but whatever the true figure, every last one of them hurt the favourites. "When you take into account what they did to a lot of the possession we managed to keep, you begin to see the whole picture," said Martin Corry, the England captain. "They were very good once they got over the ball, slowing it up and messing us around." Corry kept his powder dry on the subject of the referee - "We're not in a position to point fingers, given the way we played," he admitted - but he could not resist rolling his eyes to the heavens at the mention of Alan Lewis. The Irish official was within a gnat's crotchet of ruining a marvellous occasion with his unsympathetic governance of the breakdown; indeed, he might as well have been controlling a rugby league match, such was his reluctance to allow a contest on the floor. There again, he was entirely even-handed in his incompetence. Corry was right not to seek excuses in that direction.

The Leicester No 8 got it wrong in other areas, though. Along with Charlie Hodgson, the one fully formed playmaker clad in a white shirt, he had the opportunity to abandon the ball-in-hand strategy - a strategy undermined from the start by the absence of the dynamic Bath prop Matt Stevens - in favour of an old-fashioned territorial approach. This, he failed to do. When Andy Robinson, the England coach, withdrew him from the fray and introduced Lawrence Dallaglio for a 15-minute blast, the bankruptcy of the option-taking was formally ratified.

Inevitably, the substitution will rekindle the "Dallaglio debate" in a way Robinson would rather it was not rekindled. The former captain did not exactly impose himself on proceedings once he took the field, but that salient fact will be lost in the celebrity-driven rush to reinstate him in the starting line-up. Dallaglio himself did little to halt that rush after the game. Asked whether he was growing frustrated with his bench role, he replied, rather pointedly: "There is an element of patience involved, but I have a big match ahead of me before we travel to France in the shape of a Powergen Cup semi-final. Funnily enough, I believe it's Wasps versus Leicester." And off he swept, granite jaw to the fore.

As ever after an England defeat, there were a few "what ifs" flying around the scene of the crime. Had they scored when Steve Thompson, the massive Northampton hooker, was fully on the hoof during the first half - or, more specifically, when Thompson's club colleague Ben Cohen had a clear sight of the line at the fag-end of the period - the Scots might have been more subdued after the break. There was also a vague call for a penalty try during the same spell of English dominance, given the spate of scrummaging offences committed by Gavin Kerr and Bruce Douglas in the space of a couple of minutes.

These are fripperies, however. England lost because they tried to play the game they couldn't play, rather than sticking with the one they could. "I think you've just about nailed it," agreed Robinson, propped against the dressing-room wall, smiling his alligator's smile. The Grand Slam is gone, along with the Triple Crown. The championship is still there to be won, but with Paris next on the itinerary, only a fool or a professional escapologist will be tempted to hold his breath. There are calls to be made in selection, beyond the red herring issue of Corry and Dallaglio. England must unearth an inside centre with an all-court game, or they are lost.

Scotland, meanwhile, are walking the walk with a spring in their step. It is excellent news for the tournament, reassuring for northern hemisphere rugby, a blessed relief for a world game short of genuine contenders. And it sticks in the English craw.

Scotland: H Southwell (Edinburgh); C Paterson (Edinburgh), M Di Rollo (Edinburgh), A Henderson (Glasgow), S Lamont (Northampton); D Parks (Glasgow), M Blair (Edinburgh); G Kerr (Leeds), D Hall (Edinburgh), B Douglas (Glasgow), S MacLeod (Borders), A Kellock (Edinburgh), J White (Sale, capt), A Hogg (Edinburgh), S Taylor (Edinburgh). Replacements: N Hines (Perpignan) for MacLeod, 52; R Ford (Borders) for Hall, 59; C Smith (Edinburgh) for Douglas, 61; G Ross (Leeds) for Parks, 65; C Cusiter (Borders) for Blair, 65; S Webster (Edinburgh) for Di Rollo, 80.

England: J Lewsey (Wasps); M Cueto (Sale), J Noon (Newcastle), M Tindall (Gloucester), B Cohen (Northampton); C Hodgson (Sale), H Ellis (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester, capt). Replacements: P Freshwater (Perpignan) for Sheridan, 39-40 & 74; M Dawson (Wasps) for Ellis, 50-63 & 74; L Dallaglio (Wasps) for Corry, 65; S Shaw (Wasps) for Grewcock, 69.

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).

Murrayfield statistics


Mike Tindall 11

Jamie Noon 9

Josh Lewsey 8

Martin Corry 5

Mark Cueto 5


Ally Hogg 11

Jason White 11

Mike Blair 9

Dan Parks 9

Simon Taylor 9


Lewis Moody 3

Marcus Di Rollo 1

Charlie Hodgson 1

Ally Hogg 1

Alastair Kellock 1


Mark Cueto 2

Ben Cohen 1

Chris Cusiter 1

Nathan Hines 1

Charlie Hodgson 1


Charlie Hodgson 3

Alastair Kellock 3

Dougie Hall 2

Josh Lewsey 2

Jamie Noon 2