STUART BATHGATE @ Twickenham
ONE of the greatest comebacks in rugby history ended in Scotland being denied their first win at Twickenham since 1983 when England equalised three minutes into stoppage time. From dead and buried at 31-0 down after just half an hour, Gregor Townsend’s side got a try just before the break, then five in the second half – including four in 12 minutes – to go 38-31 up with four minutes to go.
But England were awarded a penalty three seconds before the clock went into the red, and eventually had the last word with a converted try which George Ford scored under the posts and then converted to tie the match. It was the cruellest of blows with which to end the most courageous of fightbacks.
Even so, the draw meant that, for the first time since 1984, Scotland have retained the Calcutta Cup. Perhaps more importantly, the second-half performance produced some much-needed optimism ahead of the World Cup at the end of a Six Nations which was largely disappointing.
The main concern ahead of the World Cup, of course, is the team’s inability to play with any sort of consistency over the course of a game. Their best passages of play – the second 40 against Wales, the second half here, and earlier stretches against Italy – all either preceded or followed periods in which they were, to say the least, dreadfully inconsistent.
And, while Townsend and his players will understandably stress the many positive elements of this game, it has to be recognised that, for all the excitement and passion, in terms of the Championship itself it was no longer a live issue thanks to Wales’s comprehensive dismemberment of Ireland earlier in the afternoon.
England fire out the blocks
There was certainly a strong sense of anticlimax about the match as it kicked off in wet and blustery conditions not long after the game in Cardiff had ended with the Welsh claiming the Grand Slam. Still, despite not having the title itself to play for, England began the game as if their lives depended on the result, and took the lead after one minute and eight seconds.
Scotland had been pinned back in their own half straightaway, and could only exit their 22 via an Ali Price box-kick which Billy Vunipola fielded. The mountainous No 8 was stopped in his tracks, but not before getting the ball away to Owen Farrell, and with several defenders out of position the stand-off sparked a passing move involving Elliot Daly, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell. The right-winger cut back inside from tight on the right touchline, wrong-footing what remained of the defence, with Ben Toolis the only Scot to get a hand on him before he touched down for a try which Farrell converted.
The adventurous nature of that attack was an indication of England’s mood, and they soon gave further proof of their intent when sending a kickable penalty to touch. Jamie George’s short throw-in went straight to Vunipola, who spun round, fed the ball to Tom Curry, then helped propel the ball-carrier over the line for full score No 2. Eight minutes gone, 14 points on the board.
Five minutes later it was 21. Farrell and Tuilagi combined to set up a good position, Kyle Sinckler broke, then when the tighthead was hauled to the deck Ben Youngs stepped in and fed lock Joe Launchbury, who easily made the last 10 metres to the line.
With a strong wind in their faces, Scotland struggled to play the ball out of their own half, and when Finn Russell resorted to a clearance kick exactly midway through the first half they came perilously close to conceding a fourth try. Price and Youngs were involved in a race to get to a chip ahead, and when both dived for it just over the goal line the Scot appeared to get there first and knock the ball backwards. His opposite number reacted more quickly, however, and clearly applied downward pressure. What became equally clear from the TMO review, however, was that Youngs had actually knocked it on when he and Price were contesting it, so the score was chalked off.
After 25 minutes, Farrell made it 24-0 with a penalty from in front of the posts, and the point-a-minute pummelling continued shortly thereafter when England got their fourth. Youngs got things going with a tap penalty midway inside the Scottish half, and after Darcy Graham was caught out of position trying to intercept, winger Jonny May was the grateful recipient of a clever backhand offload from Slade. May’s bonus-point try was again converted by Farrell, which made it 31-0 just past the half-hour.
McInally grabs a lifeline
Scotland’s defence had been dreadful up to that point, and their attempts at attack shambolic, but at last they gave the visiting fans something to cheer about when Stuart McInally charged down a Farrell clearance just inside the England half, then picked the ball up and, with the defence closing in, chose a clever line to make it all the way for a try which Russell converted.
The stand-off’s failure to find touch with a penalty from his own 22 gave the home team a chance to grab a fifth try before the break, but although they were thwarted, their points tally was still the most they had ever scored in the first half of a Calcutta Cup match – one more than they ran up two years ago.
Scotland, as they did a week earlier against Wales, began the second half in far better form, and were quickly rewarded for it with two fine tries. The first was from Graham, who found wriggle room tight to the left touchline to round off a good passing move; the second came from Magnus Bradbury, who was up in support after Price had gathered his own chip ahead. Russell converted the latter try, and suddenly the scoreline had gone from embarrassing to cautiously encouraging.
Townsend’s decision to make four changes right at that point ran the risk of disrupting the momentum that Scotland had behind them, but within a minute they got their own bonus try. Graham was again the finisher, this time from a scoring pass by Sean Maitland from an attack initiated by a long, floated pass from Russell.
Then, as if that was not remarkable enough, Russell intercepted a Farrell kick right on halfway to run in try No 5, and with substitute Greig Laidlaw converting it was all square at 31-31 with 20 minutes to go.
And it could have got better still if Laidlaw had not been wide with a long-range penalty given for foul play by Farrell on Graham. Undaunted by that miss, however, Scotland went on to take the lead with just four minutes to go. Simon Berghan ripped the ball from Vunipola in the tackle, Russell passed to Sam Johnson on the 10-metre line, and the centre ran all the way to score by the posts, allowing Laidlaw to add the two points easily. Somehow, Scotland were in the lead.
Could Scotland dare to dream the impossible?
With time running out, Fraser Brown gave away a penalty in midfield, beginning the long move that saw England go on to draw level. They got another penalty far closer to the end, and the referee was playing a long advantage when George Ford crossed between the posts. The substitute added the two points with the last kick of the game, and a contest that must have been enthralling for neutrals ended in galling fashion for a Scotland squad that had thrown so much into one of the most remarkable matches ever seen in the century and a half of the fixture.
England: E Daly; J Nowell, H Slade, M Tuilagi (B Te’o 77), J May; O Farrell (G Ford 70), B Youngs (B Spencer 73); B Moon (E Genge 5), J George (L Cowan-Dickie 73), K Sinckler (D Cole 50), J Launchbury (N Hughes 70), G Kruis, M Wilson (B Shields 62), T Curry, W Vunipola.
Scotland: S Maitland (A Hastings 68); D Graham, N Grigg (C Harris 57), S Johnson, B McGuigan; F Russell, A Price (G Laidlaw 57); A Dell (G Reid 45), S McInally (Brown 57), W Nel (S Berghan 60), B Toolis, G Gilchrist (J Gray 57), S Skinner (J Strauss 56), H Watson, M Bradbury.
Referee: P Williams (New Zealand).
England: Tries: Vunipola, Curry, Launchbury, May, Ford; Cons: Farrell 4, Ford; Pen: Farrell.
Scotland: Tries: McInally, Graham 2, Bradbury, Russell, Johnson; Cons: Russell 2, Laidlaw 2.
Scoring sequence (England first): 5-0, 7-0, 12-0, 14-0, 19-0, 21-0, 24-0, 29-0, 31-0, 31-5, 31-7 half-time, 31-12, 31-17, 31-19, 31-24, 31-29, 31-31, 31-36, 31-38, 36-38, 38-38.