Another English Grand Slam campaign bit the dust in Edinburgh yesterday, and the taste was as bitter as ever. Ten years after Will Carling's red rose vintage famously choked on their own complacency here, Matt Dawson's millennial breed found the accursed place every bit as unpalatable and indigestible.
Scotland, the Six Nations no-hopers who had somehow contrived to lose in Rome two months previously, not only beat the overwhelming favourites, but beat them well. Not for the first time on an occasion that really mattered, the visitors were out-fought, out-thought and out-played.
Clive Woodward, the England coach, had spent the week-long build-up warning against assumptions of victory, insisting that his side had "won nothing yet". That has now changed: England are the first Six Nations champions, courtesy of the Welsh triumph in Dublin on Saturday. But Woodward looked and sounded as though his first title in two and a half years as national coach was about as welcome as a portion of damp haggis.
At the end of a wonderfully ferocious contest, England headed straight to the dressing-room to begin their post-mortem, leaving a bewildered Princess Royal holding a trophy they had no desire to accept.
"We may have won the tournament, but I feel exactly as I did last year," Woodward confessed miserably, referring to England's previous Grand Slam misfire against Wales at Wembley.
His assistant, John Mitchell, was almost suicidal. "I'll deal with this in my own way, and I can tell you it will be harshly," muttered the former All Black captain. Mitchell returns to New Zealand this week, uncomfortable in the knowledge that the forward pack in which he invested almost three years of his life had disappeared without trace beneath the rain puddles scattered across the best playing surface in world rugby.
Only Lawrence Dallaglio, who rose above his own red mist and took the fight to a pumped-up Scottish eight, and Simon Shaw, whose fearless ball-carrying occasionally made the blue-shirted hordes look to their laurels, were remotely on their game. Their opposite numbers were, however, more impressive still. Martin Leslie produced one of the great defensive performances from a Calcutta Cup No 8, while Scott Murray fairly murdered the visitors at the line-out, which was a veritable palace of pain for England from first minute to last.
And then there was Northampton's Budge Pountney, who makes a habit of winning personal battles against Neil Back, his East Midlands rival from Leicester. Ian McGeechan, the Scotland coach, had bestowed upon Pountney his ultimate accolade - "Budge is a Test match animal," he said on Thursday - and his decision to ask his open-side flanker to lead the home pack paid more dividends than Microsoft in a boom year. Pountney went toe to toe against the bigger England forwards, soaked up untold amounts of punishment, gave the odd bit back when the opportunity presented itself and scavanged his heart out.
Perhaps conscious of the "slow walk" tactics used by Scotland in 1990 - a clever psychological ploy that succeeded in raising the Murrayfield temperature to melting point - England attempted their own mind-game yesterday by linking arms aggressively, standing near the tunnel and waiting for the Scots to appear. As an exercise in one-upmanship, it was entirely hopeless: the Scots simply stayed in the warm as the sleet whipped in off the Pentland Hills. When they finally emerged, they treated their opponents with utter disdain.
The favourites did not fare much better when the game kicked off. Pountney rucked his way into Shaw's bad books almost instantly, while Murray provoked the combustible Garath Archer sufficiently to lead the Bristol lock up a temperamental cul-de-sac. The masters of hindsight will insist that Woodward should have selected Martin Johnson, his World Cup captain, for a match as edgy as this one, but Johnson is nobody's idea of a pacifist and, with the fur flying in all directions for much of the first half, he would probably have spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin.
It was a desperately hard encounter; if Leslie's tackle on Jonny Wilkinson early in the opening quarter was a statement of intent, so too was Mike Tindall's all-embracing assault on the threatening Chris Paterson at the other end. Amid all the fisticuffs and handbag-swinging, Duncan Hodge opened the scoring with a penalty, but Scotland's lead lasted less than three minutes.
England were fortunate to force a five-metre scrum when Mike Catt's chip hit one of the Scottish posts and prevented Paterson clearing the danger, but there was no luck attached to Dallaglio's arching run from the base of the set-piece. Jason White, the new Scottish blind-side, was nowhere near the long-striding Wasp as he completed a seven-point score.
For the only time in the match, England held the whip hand: Tindall's direct running provoked Jim McLaren into committing the mother and father of all high tackles, and after the Bourgoin centre had been packed off to the cooler, Wilkinson chipped over the penalty to give England some daylight.
But the real light was fast disappearing as the clouds closed in and, suitably inspired, the Scots repulsed wave after wave of enemy assaults. In fact, they cut the deficit while McLaren was still off the field, Hodge kicking a penalty on half-time.
At that moment, the game shifted decisively towards the Scots. They started the second half in traditional "tartan terror" mode, rucking the disorganised English forwards to the four winds, and it was no great surprise when Hodge, who had put them in front with a fourth penalty, scrambled over for a close-range try six minutes from time following a high-octane drive off White's clean line-out delivery. Wilkinson's penalty two minutes later was an irrelevance, which is rather how the English now view their status as European champions.
SCOTLAND: C Paterson (Edinburgh Reivers); C Moir (Northampton), G Townsend (Brive), J McLaren (Bourgoin); G Metcalfe (Glasgow Caledonians); D Hodge (Edinburgh Reivers), A Nicol (Glasgow Caledonians, capt); T Smith (Brive), S Brotherstone (Brive), M Stewart (Northampton), S Murray (Saracens), R Metcalfe (Northampton), J White (Glasgow Caledonians), A Pountney (Northampton), M Leslie (Edinburgh Reivers). Replacement: G McIlwham (Glasgow Caledonians) for Stewart, 69.
ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); A Healey (Leicester), M Tindall (Bath), M Catt (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton, capt); J Leonard (Harlequins), P Greening (Wasps), P Vickery (Gloucester), G Archer (Bristol), S Shaw (Wasps), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: I Balshaw (Bath) for Cohen, 58; M Corry (Leicester) for Archer, 64; J Worsley (Wasps) for Hill, 83.
Referee: C Thomas (Wales)Reuse content