Six Nations: Hodge the anti-hero as Scots rue a missed opportunity

The toast of Edinburgh two years ago becomes a haunted figure
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The Independent Online

Poor Bill McLaren. Just when he needed a vivid portrait to paint, his last Calcutta Cup produced a thousand shades of grey.

Poor Bill McLaren. Just when he needed a vivid portrait to paint, his last Calcutta Cup produced a thousand shades of grey. It was hardly the sort of send-off the voice of rugby would have relished. Doubtless he was at his lyrical best, but even the most accomplished commentators – and McLaren is one of the rare ones who genuinely deserves the celebrity thrust upon him – are at the mercy of the action. Scotland were woeful. No, they were worse than that. They were comical. The less obvious point, though the scoreline of 29-3 barely reflects it, is that England made desperately hard work of their ultimately handsome victory. If that is harsh, then England have set their own standards.

But for Glenn Metcalfe's mistake – neither the first nor the last by the dark blues – which gifted Mike Tindall the third, decisive try, England might have been extended deeper into the game than the 50th minute. England defended mightily, but Scotland could have played on to next Hogmanay without scoring, so inept was their thinking, so insecure much of their handling. Thank goodness for Jason Robinson, who effectively settled the game with two tries in the first 15 minutes and was never less than hypnotic. Scotland never fully recovered. Duncan Hodge, who just 18 months ago was the hero in the destruction of England's Grand Slam, might never recover. Ever.

Rarely has sport's fickleness been so publicly advertised. The Scotland stand-off searched his game for any working part and found only scraps. Two simple penalties flew wide, at critical moments; every tactical kick arrowed unerringly straight to a white England shirt and, in arguably the key moment of the match, straight from the kick-off which followed Robinson's first try, he dropped a simple, quite possibly try-scoring pass.

The Scotland coach, Ian McGeechan, whose surprise recall of Hodge had raised a few eyebrows north of the border, had to reflect on a gamble that miserably failed. "He's disappointed," said the Scotland coach. "But tomorrow's another day." It must have been a long night.

Yet a decent enough framework for another famous upset had been constructed in the bars down Princes Street by kick-off. The thesis was based more on the vagaries of the Scottish weather than anything to do with rugby, though a few eyebrows had been raised by the exclusion of Mike Catt and the return of Mike Tindall, his Bath team-mate. Brain sacrificed for brawn, in the minds of Woodward's critics. "The weather's weather," Ian McGeechan said in his final press conference. Geech did not want his side relying for comfort on the accuracy of the Edinburgh met office. Just as well. As February afternoons go, this was near perfect. The sky was clear blue and, if the pitch was on the heavy side, the blustery wind died enough to mock the doom-merchants.

In the welter of pre-match statistics, one differential seemed more significant than most. In winning the Six Nations' Championship – or losing the Grand Slam, depending on your point of view – England scored 137 more points than the Scots. Scotland were the only team who failed to score a try in two matches. Provided the England pack gained enough ball, there was enough electricity in the backs to power the local grid.

The shambles of a presentation did little to aid Scotland's cause. A half-sung, finally aborted, national anthem caught the home side still taking up their places, while the "Flower of Scotland", a stirring rallying cry at full throttle, was surprisingly tame, as if someone had read the script for the opening quarter. After 15 minutes, Scotland were 12-0 down and Robinson had scored two casually brilliant tries.

On the touchline, Marty Hulme, Scotland's fitness coach, must have buried his head in his hands. Hulme, of all people, understands the explosiveness of Robinson's power; it was the Australian who has nurtured and fostered it, in spells with Wigan in the late Nineties and, now at Sale, where Robinson plies his trade. "There's not much more to say about him," Woodward said. "He's a wonderful player and also a wonderful bloke. I think even the Scots enjoyed his tries."

That is debatable. There is no more critical arena in world sport than Murrayfield. Just ask Craig Chalmers, whose nerves more than once turned to blancmange here. Only a chorus of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" raised local ire above the swirling criticism of their own team's incompetence.

Yet England were only marginally less error-prone. Instead of capitalising on their flying start, they struggled to engage even third gear. "It was really hard work," Martin Johnson, the England captain, admitted. "We shut them down, but we just couldn't hold on to the ball. Whenever we got into their half, we dropped a pass, conceded a penalty or gave the ball away." The harder Scotland tried to exploit the unexpected hesitancy – and for a period just after half-time they pounded the England defence – the more technicolor their own mistakes became.

But, as Woodward pointed out, 29-3 with a try count of 4-0 would have been a thoroughly acceptable score before kick-off. The finale turned into an emotional fly-past, for the rookie Harlequins scrum-half, Nick Duncombe, who had replaced Kyran Bracken at half-time barely two years after he broke his neck in a schools match. And for Ben Cohen, who has spent much of the past month in a Birmingham court listening to the defence of three men accused of the manslaughter of his father Peter in November 2000. On Wednesday, a verdict of not guilty was delivered on the main charge, though the men were sentenced to prison terms of between two-and-a-half and three years for violent disorder. "You have to get on with the rest of your life," the England wing said.

But his galloping try in the closing moments had a particular poignancy. "That chapter will never be out of his mind," Woodward said of Cohen's grief. "But he can move on." That was the most significant legacy of a strangely subdued afternoon.

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