COULD the retention of a silver trophy herald the start of a Golden Age of Scottish rugby? The current sequence of results in the Calcutta Cup – three wins and a draw from the last five games following Saturday’s 20-17 victory – is Scotland’s best for half a century, so can Gregor Townsend’s well-balanced and richly talented team go on to win a first Championship since 1999? Are we even looking at a potential Grand Slam here?
The first thing to say is that the squad themselves are looking no further ahead than Saturday’s trip to Cardiff. Wales may have been soundly beaten by Ireland on Saturday, when the absence of so many experienced players told badly on their performance, but they will be a tough nut to crack on their own patch, and Scotland may well have to show the same resilience in defence that they did against England if they are to claim a second successive win in this year’s Six Nations.
Even if they succeed in that aim, the toughest challenges will still await them. So no time yet for daydreams of glory.
But for all that necessary caution, it is clearer than ever that this Scotland team is growing steadily in maturity, self-confidence and ability. The manner of Saturday’s victory was testament to that, as they withstood wave after wave of England attacks to secure that three-point triumph. Perhaps only a handful of the 22 players used were at or close to their best throughout the match, but they all chipped in when it counted most.
“It’s a good sign that we turned up and didn’t really fire that many shots and still managed to win the game,” was Hamish Watson’s verdict on that crucial aspect of the match. “I think we can take confidence from the fact that when we had the ball, we looked dangerous. But it is something that we are going to have to look at, that they were on top for large periods of that game and we had to make a lot of tackles.
“Getting off to a winning start in the Six Nations, like we did last season, helps confidence and helps momentum, and it is a huge result for us no matter who we were playing. So it is a huge win, but it means nothing if we don’t go to Cardiff and back it up.”
Watson and his team-mates will need no reminding of what happened last season after they got off to a winning start by beating England. Wales came to Murrayfield and won by a point, boosting their own title hopes and dealing Scotland’s a severe blow. The Scots came away with a win on their last visit to Wales, but that was at an empty Parc y Scarlets: a full Principality Stadium is an altogether different challenge.
And the Welsh are not alone in having injury problems. Scotland’s are less severe at present, but they will be without Jamie Ritchie, a consistently excellent performer over the past couple of seasons, after a hamstring/groin injury on Saturday saw him end the game as a spectator on crutches.
Fortunately, Magnus Bradbury is a ready-made replacement for his Edinburgh team-mate, and has himself enjoyed great form so far this season. And with man-of-the-match Matt Fagerson and Watson himself there to join Bradbury, the back row has a good blend to it at present.
Behind the scrum, Finn Russell was one of those who had to wait patiently for his chance to shine as England hogged possession for the bulk of the first half and significant stretches of the second. Even so, the stand-off exemplified his team’s virtue of patiently biding their time before striking back decisively.
“I thought Finn controlled the game well,” Watson added. “It was tough, and when you’re not getting much ball it would have been easy to keep trying things and shipping it on.
“We know how great an attacker Finn is, but his kicking game has been awesome over the last couple of years, and you saw that with those grubbers he put through to pin them back, especially in the second half.”
Russell’s kicks were indeed a vital element of Scotland’s fightback after the visitors briefly went 17-10 ahead in the second half just after the hour. The withdrawal of Marcus Smith, who had scored all of England’s points through a try and four penalties, was another telling factor in the home side’s recovery, as much of his team’s creativity left the field with him.
It was Russell’s high punt towards Darcy Graham that produced the penalty try and Luke Cowan-Dickie’s sinbinning. And it was the same player’s grubber that led to Joe Marler’s pitiful attempt to throw in at the lineout, which led in turn to a scrum then a penalty, from which Russell kicked the match-winning score.
Russell had earlier converted Ben White’s try and added a penalty to put Scotland 10-6 up at the break. So, despite not producing the flurry of flamboyant passes that was once his trademark, the playmaker was nonetheless a critical influence on the game when it mattered most.