Six Nations: Five takeaways from England v Scotland as clinical visitors too good for error-strewn hosts
Following a 29-23 victory for Scotland over England in their Six Nations fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the game at Twickenham.
The top line
Scotland fed off scraps at Twickenham to deliver one of the most efficient displays of finishing seen for many years at England’s home of rugby.
With possession stats of 70% v 30% in favour of the hosts, the sheer efficiency of the Scots with ball in hand and in contact was staggering. Player of the match Duhan van der Merwe made 104 metres in eight massive carries that saw him beat 10 defenders and grab a thrilling brace, but the beat of the Bravehearts was Matt Fagerson at number eight. He put in an astonishing 27 tackles, many at the first phase of the gain line, battering the England carriers into submission as they failed time after time to make metres in contact.
With slick lineout work defeating England’s two jumper policy and with Scots skipper Jamie Ritchie equally as effective as his number eight, the number of forced and unforced errors from England took away any momentum or control that they tried to exert.
For Steve Borthwick, his wish of hearing Twickenham in full voice came true, but sadly it was the Scottish voice that opened their pipes as the visitors yet again turned over England in the Calcutta Cup.
Red zone efficiency
England spent four minutes and 44 seconds in Scotland’s 22, yielding three tries to Max Malins (2) and Ellis Genge, but much of that time was spent battering into a wall of blue without any form of return. Conversely, Scotland’s visits to the red zone lasted only one minute and 44 seconds, yet saw them cross four times, a remarkable efficiency rate, but one probably enhanced by the powerful running of Van der Merwe.
The difference in carry was noticeable. England went into this game with the aim of fast ruck ball (which at times they achieved) but short on big carriers, putting an immense workload on Ellis Genge and Lewis Ludlam. Indeed, Ludlam was a beacon of excellence in a back-row that came off substantially second best, as he hit 17 carries for 72 metres, a wonderful run and feint to sent Max Malins over and was one of England’s main contributors in their mainly five man pod lineout approach.
However, Test rugby is often about efficiency and opportunism and in that respect, Scotland were on a different level to England and great value for their deserved win.
Farrell and Smith
England have had a lot of criticism of playing two fly-halves at 10 and 12, but today we saw a small improvement to the attacking work in the backs for the simple reason that Marcus Smith was allowed to play at fly-half rather than switching the duties with Owen Farrell. That part of the midfield went well, with both players hitting some lovely pass work off good ruck speed.
However, without that power runner in the backs to create dominant phase play and keep the attack going forward rather than side to side, the good work of the pair went largely to waste. Joe Marchant was selected to do a job for this fixture and, quite frankly, he failed to have the impact required and Borthwick will surely rue releasing Manu Tuilagi back to Sale Sharks in a match where his directness was sorely needed.
With Sione Tuipulotu outside him, Finn Russell prospered with that ‘get out of jail’ runner, a man that had variety of boot, bosh and pass. As a result, the Scots’ attack had that little bit more bite as evidenced by the stats.
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Whilst the penalty count was fairly even, the unforced errors at restarts and in contact from England will be of huge concern to Borthwick and his coaches.
Fluffed restarts – two by the otherwise outstanding Ollie Chessum – allowed Scotland to get back into the match. In the first half, a sluggish run by Ollie Hassell-Collins saw him drift away from support, his back-row failing to offer a ruck presence and, as a result, was turned over. The ensuing lineout (a brilliantly executed extension move) saw Van der Merwe smash firstly through Marchant and Chessum before leaving both Ludlam and Freddie Steward for dead to fly over in a hammer blow try.
Whilst the finish from the big wing was wonderful to watch, the careless turnover of Hassell-Collins, the failure to deal with and defend the lineout extension and the four missed tackles made this a self-inflicted blow of huge proportions.
More was soon to follow. As soon as Ellis Genge had crashed over, so Chessum fumbled a restart allowing Scotland an attacking scrum. Fagerson hit a first phase ruck, Ben White took his moment once again against England to scoot over, but the simple truth was England’s carelessness at the restart was the catalyst for Scotland’s field position.
With Maro Itoje gifting Russell a three-pointer from a simple ruck offside, England will realise that at least 12 points were gifted to Scotland, partly due to the visitors’ brilliant pressure, but largely down to concentration and execution lapses.
For Scotland, they will want to see more possession with which to unleash their backs and perhaps a little more accuracy all round from their superstar 10. Their effort in the back five of the pack was quite remarkable at times in defence, and their set-piece was as solid as Ben Nevis itself. They’ll host Wales next week in fine spirits and looking only to tweak a few of their combinations.
On the other hand, England will have a number of concerns. The lack of gain line dominance cost them so much momentum. Sure, the rucks won were quick, but Test rugby is about getting behind the primary defence and into scramble situations. It’s clear they’re short of a carrier or two, but that’s an easy fix if it’s identified.
The unforced errors will be a mighty concern. This weekend, they’ll put them down to bedding in and a new regime, but should they occur again next weekend against a promising Italy, the result might just be a little more embarrassing.
READ MORE: Scotland player ratings: Duhan van der Merwe demolishes England in tight Six Nations win