England vs Scotland was, for long periods, really quite boring. It was tense, it was physical and it was committed; but the inability of either side to string phases together or to handle well produced a game that was disjointed and stodgy. From the perspective of an England fan, it was a predictably mixed bag, as the new regime was subjected to its first public examination. I have therefore settled on a new and somewhat lazy mode of analysis, looking at the good, the bad and the ugly from a winning start.
England won. They won at Murrayfield, which is a famously difficult ground for the Red Rose, and they did so after only two weeks together. ’A win is a win’ was a mantra that dogged the Johnson era and was ultimately at the heart of a disappointing World Cup campaign, but in this instance it is a reasonable attitude. Certainly, given that the performance wasn’t exactly champagne rugby, it is better to have played like that and won than to have played like that and lost.
Several individuals played well, most notably Brad Barritt, who was simply outstanding in defence. He and Farrell lined up as expected in attack, with Farrell in the wider role, but in defence Barritt was handed the responsibility of the outside centre position and he was magnificent there. His ability to put in big hits will have made the highlights reel, but much more important was his decision-making, as he consistently knew when to step up, when to drift and when to hold the line. Indeed, his performance was at the heart of another major England positive – their defensive organisation. Scotland’s inability to convert overlaps was in part due to their poor execution but it also owed a lot to England’s perfectly timed drift defence. With Barritt reading nearly everything at 13, and Strettle and Ashton both knowing when to blitz inwards and when to stay wide, the defensive line looked as solid as it has since 2003. This in turn led to much, much better discipline, as England consistently managed to stay on the right side of the law before turning over dangerous attacks legitimately.
In addition, Chris Robshaw showed ample stomach for the fight, and did a reasonable enough job at the breakdown; Foden was solid as a rock at fullback, saving at least two tries with his tackling; and the scrum, an area of concern before the game, actually had the edge over the Scottish set piece. Owen Farrell was anonymous with ball in hand but he showed great composure in converting his place kicks, and he and Hodgson both tried to play flat on the gain line, which will reap rewards as the continuity increases. Also refreshing was the kicking from hand, which was by-and-large of good quality. Indeed, this was an area which was very significant in England’s victory, as Hodgson comfortably outmanoeuvred Parks, declining to give the Scottish back three easy ball with which to counterattack.
Principal among the disappointing aspects was a lack of structure. This is a new squad, not used to playing together, but a team where the 10, 11, 12 and 13 are all from the same club should be able to gel quickly. Instead, England barely had the ball for most of the game, and when they did they failed to establish any rhythm. Leaving aside the handling errors (see below), there didn’t seem to be a coherent plan for where and how to attack and, a brief second-half period aside, there was little in the way of incision. I can barely remember Farrell, an exciting and creative player, having the ball in his hands while he was at 13; and the potentially explosive back three was restricted to very occasional half-chances. This lack of structure was exacerbated by the wobbly lineout, which needs to be shored up as a matter of urgency.
The other major disappointment was Phil Dowson, who had a game to forget. As well as dropping a simple restart, which led to Scotland’s first points, he was only noticeable for the wrong reasons. Much like Haskell last year, he lacks control at the base of the scrum, which puts significant pressure on Youngs and Hodgson. Indeed, England’s worst and most self-destructive play of the game, when Ashton ran the ball from a scrum inside his own 22 and conceded a penalty, was in fact caused by Dowson’s failure to provide a solid platform – as the ball squirted out of the scrum on the wrong side, Youngs was unable to throw a long pass to Hodgson and so resorted to Ashton, who was preparing to set off after Hodgson’s kick. This is symptomatic of the difficulty of playing a blindside flanker at number 8, and Ben Morgan will fancy his chances of a start against Italy.
The (Downright) Ugly
While some of England’s imperfections can be put down to inexperience, both individually and as a squad, some were simply inexcusable. Both sides were guilty of some cringe-worthy handling errors, a factor which killed any chance of momentum and rhythm in attack. While Scotland’s mistakes were more costly, most notably when Ross Rennie allowed Foden to spoil his try-scoring pass to Mike Blair, England put themselves under pressure by losing the ball in contact and failing to pass accurately enough. Hodgson’s admirable desire to play very, very flat (something which he has done magnificently for Saracens all season) was undone by uncharacteristically wayward distribution; and, while both side’s culpability does suggest difficult conditions, professionals at this level should set much higher standards.
Finally, Lancaster himself noted that England were “broken” on several occasions in their one-on-one defence. As mentioned, their organisation was excellent and they will be pleased to have conceded just 6 points from a 20% deficit in possession. However, the defensive system has to be supported by good individual tackling and the majority of Scotland’s chances came from simply running straight through an England tackle. The Welsh, and in particular the French, will not be so profligate, so the white wall of England’s defensive line cannot afford any crumbling bricks.