Scotland’s biennial visit to Twickenham ended in defeat yet again yesterday, this time with a convincing 20-point margin in favour of the home side.
Even though Scotland briefly took the lead early in the first half, they were really never in this as a contest and the 38-18 final score could have been a whole lot worse. But it would be wrong, very wrong, to indulge in the usual recriminations about how bad Scotland were because this as not about Scotland being bad: this was about England being good, very good.
There had been mutterings beforehand about the All Blacks being tired and ill when they were beaten by a rampant England team in November. But England were superb that day and they showed they have carried that power, precision and pace into the Six Nations.
Scotland played well – better indeed than they did in the whole of last season’s Six Nations – but were simply blown away by what is turning into a very good England team.
In the past, England may have relied on a few superstars, a good kicker and a handful of bullies to get the job done: nor any more. It is really difficult to pick out individuals from yesterday’s England performance because they played like a team – something they haven’t done for years, and that’s worrying for their opponents. This is a team built in coach Stuart Lancaster’s image: tough, unshowy, hard-working and efficient. Every single player in the England team had the ability to get over the gain line on first phase possession and they are building a good offloading game into their bash-em and drive them style which makes it very hard to defend against.
Scotland did do some things wrong. Scott Johnson, Scotland’s coach, was right to identify the break-down as the place where Scotland lost the game and England dominated the contact area. Scotland need to improve there before hosting Italy next week. Ruaridh Jackson had a mixed game at fly half. He missed one penalty to touch which ultimately led to an England try and had a kick charged down which led to another but his tight passing was excellent and he tackled his heart out. It would be hard for him to be replaced for the Italian game because he will get more time on the ball in that one so should be able to control matters a little more.
But his number ten shirt could easily be handed to Duncan Weir ahead of next week if Scotland want to control the territory better than they managed at Twickenham.
The real Scottish plus yesterday was the virtuoso performance from Stuart Hogg. It could be argued that Hogg was the best player on the pitch, not just the best Scot but the suspicion remains that Scotland could get even more out of him at outside centre, rather than an full back. Hogg is a great tackler, has a tremendous boot on him and can counter attack like no-one else – which does make him a great fullback – but he is also a fabulously elusive runner with soft hands – and Scotland have real problems in the centres.
There is no point having speedy wingers if they never see the ball and, with Sean Lamont at 13, that is what happens. How often did Lamont actually receive the ball and pass it on the wingers? I can’t remember it happening once.
The solution is to bring Hogg up to 13 that would give him time to develop a great partnership with the ever improving Matt Scott at 12, both of them are young and could become one of Scotland’s best combinations in midfield. Tim Visser and Sean Maitland should stay on the wings but Grieg Tonks should be brought in at full back. The Edinburgh number 15 was one of the stand-out performers in Scotland A’s fantastic win over the England Saxons on Friday night. Tonks was magnificent under the high ball, he made a number of searing breaks from the back and kicked long and safely to clear his lines. Tonks was harshly overlooked for the full Scotland squad before the England game because of Edinburgh’s poor domestic form but he showed on Friday quite how good he is. Johnson should bring him in immediately.
Steven Lawrie at hooker was another to impress on Friday night, as was Glasgow number eight Ryan Wilson, both of whom deserve promotion to the full squad, but probably only as far as the bench.
There should also be a change in the second row where Jim Hamilton has to be dropped. He was brought in for his bulk but he simply can’t cope with the speed that the Six Nations is played at in the loose these days and he was vulnerable in the lineout.
Al Kellock, who has been playing superbly all season, should return and Johnson has to go for an out-an-out seven in the back row.
Given that Scotland were beaten at the breakdown yesterday, they need a proper breakaway and, if Ross Rennie and John Barclay are both still injured next week then he has to call up Chris Fusaro from Glasgow or Roddy Grant from Edinburgh.
Other than that, Scotland played as well as was possible against an England team that has at last begun to show it is a sum of its parts, with all players coming on to the ball at pace, clearing out rucks and having the confidence to off load.
So the team to play Italy at Murrayfield should be: 1. Ryan Grant, 2. Ross Ford, 3. Ewan Murray, 4, Richie Gray, 5. Al Kellock, 6, Kelly Brown, 7. Chris Fusaro. 8. Johnnie Beattie. 9. Greig Laidlaw. 10. Duncan Weir. 11. Tim Visser. 12. Matt Scott. 13. Stuart Hogg. 14. Sean Maitland. 15. Greig Tonks. Subs: Jon Welsh. Steven Lawrie. Moray Low. Grant Gilchrist. Ryan Wilson. Sean Kennedy. Ruaridh Jackson. Max Evans.
But Johnson will probably stick with the same bunch that took the field at Twickenham yesterday, probably with just Denton coming in for the injured Al Strokosch – which would be both a shame and a mistake.
Lions watch: those who enhanced their Lions credentials yesterday – pretty much the whole of the England team particularly Ben Youngs, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, Owen Farrell and Billy Twelvetrees. For Scotland, only Stuart Hogg and possibly Richie Gray and Johnnie Beattie made an impression with Hogg the only one to really catch the eye.