GIVEN that they lost 53-0 in this fixture last year, and 80-0 the year before, this can be accurately described as progress for the visitors – but it was still a stark reminder of the gulf which exists between the professionals of England and the largely amateur Scots.
As always, Scotland’s courage was admirable, but with so many of their players having had so little rugby in the last year, they really struggled to find their feet and ended up 33-3 down at the break.
The second half was better and Scotland will be frustrated that replacement Molly Wright was sent-off with just under 20 minutes to go, because at that point they really had disrupted England’s rhythm, although getting back to within touching distance was never really a serious prospect.
“The first game for a few months was always going to be difficult – we were under no illusions that it was going to be a tough ask,” said Scotland head coach Bryan Easson. “We’d built up pretty well coming into the game, which we’d been pleased about, but until you play rugby at this level it’s going to take you time to understand the systems and structures and put together what we’ve been working on.
“Emotionally there were rollercoasters in there. We were all disappointed with our first-half display – we felt at half-time that we’d just sat back and waited to see what England were going to bring to us.
“So, at half-time we were quite strong with our words, especially defensively … just staying in the tackle. And our time in tackle in the second half put England under more pressure and allowed us to have more ball.
“We’ll take positives from the game rather than look at the first half. We’re going to look at that first half as getting back on the horse again, and now we’re on it.”
Scotland weren’t helped by charismatic captain Rachel Malcolm picking up a knee injury in the first minute.
“It happened in the first kick-off when she went up for the ball and landed awkwardly,” explained Rennie. “Rachel being Rachel, she’s got the heart of a lion, she wants to be on the pitch and she felt she was fine. But as the game went on she felt that she couldn’t give anything.
“Losing a player like Rachel, the leader, in a game like that is difficult to deal with, but I thought when she went off [at half-time] everybody stepped up to the mark,” he added.
It is not clear at this stage whether Malcolm will return for Scotland’s next game against Italy in a fortnight’s time. “She’s in a brace and is being well looked after. It will take 24 to 48 hours before we understand what’s going on there,” said Easson.
England were straight onto the offensive with a powerful charge from eventual player of the match Poppy Cleall setting the tone, and while Scotland managed to weather that initial storm, the pressure was relentless, leading to Marlie Packer opening the scoring in the 10th minute.
The hosts continued to dominate, with Jess Breach looking particularly dangerous on the left wing, but a combination of Scottish doggedness and a lack of composure in the strike zone meant it was another seven minutes before England extended their lead. Eventually, however, scrum-half Leanne Riley nipped in to make it 12-0.
Finally, Scotland managed to work their way in England’s 22, and although they struggled to make headway against an aggressive home defence, they did manage to get off the mark through a successful Helen Nelson ruck penalty, which was the team’s fist points against this opposition since 2018 and definitely a high-water mark during a fraught first half for the visitors.
A powerful line-out drive led to hooker Lark Davies claiming England’s third try just shy of the half hour mark, then tight-head prop Bryony Cleall marked her second cap – two injury-ravaged years after her first – by rumbling over for the bonus-point try off an inside pass by twin sister Poppy.
To add to Scotland’s misery, the influential Lisa Thomson was sent to the sin-bin for taking Riley out off the ball in the lead-up to that score, and England took almost immediate advantage of the extra player when Helena Rowland‘s cross-field kick found Breach, who slalomed outside Rachel Shankland and inside Chloe Rollie on her way to the line, making it 33-3 at the turnaround.
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Breach was heavily involved again when England claimed try number six after four minutes of the second half, showing her pace to get outside Rollie on the left wing and then her strength to stay on her feet in the tackle until Rowland arrived on the scene to finish the move off.
To their enormous credit, Scotland would not lie down, and after a lengthy period of possession inside their opponents’ 22, they found themselves playing against 14 men when Poppy Cleall was sent to the cooler for slapping the ball out of scrum-half Mairi McDonald hands at base of a ruck.
Scotland kept the pressure on and England conceded three more penalties five yards from their own line before Hannah Smith slipped her tackler and darted home off a quick tap from McDonald for a hard-earned try, with Nelson slotting the conversion.
England were then temporarily reduced to 13 players when Davies was sent to the sin-bin following a shoulder to head collision with Siobhan Cattigan, and the home penalties kept coming. In fact, there was fairly strong argument for their number being reduced to 12 when Riley tried to pull McDonald into a ruck right under the nose of referee Clara Munarini.
Wright was not so fortunate when she went high in a tackle and made contact with Vickii Cornborough‘s head prompting a red card.
Player safety must always be paramount, and this was the correct call by the letter of the law, but it does stick in the craw to see such a severe sanction for what was effectively a misjudgement, while a blatant and deliberate piece of cheating a minute and a half earlier was punished with just a penalty and a ticking off.
Poppy Cleall got England’s seventh try via a powerful line-out drive and it looked like the No8 had scored another a few minutes later when a dominant home scrum marched Scotland back over their own line, but the video evidence indicated that she had lost control in the act of touching down.
England brought up the half-century with a late penalty-try, with Louise McMillan also being sent to the sin-bin for the final two minutes for collapsing a maul as it rolled ominously towards her team’s line.
England: S McKenna; L Thompson (E Kildunne 64), E Scarratt (M Jones 63), L Tuima, J Breach; H Rowland, L Riley (C MacDonald 64); V Cornborough (D Harper 64), L Davies, B Cleall (S Brown 57), A Ward, C O’Donnell (H Millar-Mills 64), Z Aldcroft, M Packer (A Cokayne 59), P Cleall.
Scotland: C Rollie; R Shankland (L Musgrove 40), H Smith, L Thomson, M Gaffney; H Nelson, M McDonald (J Maxwell 64); L Bartlett (P Muzambe 72), L Skeldon, C Belisle (M Wright 61), E Wassell, L McMillan, R Malcolm (E Gallagher 40, L Cockburn 63), R McLachlan (J Rettie 72), S Cattigan.
England: Tries: Packer, Riley, Davies, B Cleall, Breach, Rowland, P Cleall, Penalty Try; Cons: Scarratt 5.
Scotland: Try: Smith; Con: Nelson; Pen: Nelson.
Scoring sequence (England first): 5-0; 7-0; 12-0; 12-3; 17-3; 19-3; 24-3; 26-3; 31-3; 33-3 (h-t) 38-3; 40-3; 40-8; 40-10; 45-10, 52-10.
Yellow cards –
England: P Cleall (52mins), Davies (58mins).
Scotland: Thomson (36mins), Nelson (79mins).
Red cards –
Scotland: Wright (64mins)