A MATURE performance built on solid defence was enough – just – for Scotland to kick-start their Six Nations campaign in spectacular fashion.
It was a nerve-wracking match right to the end, when England had four scrums in an excellent attacking position and one slip-up would have handed them an easy penalty. But, as the visitors’ coach Eddie Jones accepted, Scotland deserved to win.
They withstood a barrage of pressure in the first half to go in at the break 10-6 ahead, maintaining their composure as England went for the jugular, and they took their chances to hit back in the second after Marcus Smith had given his team the lead. And, it should be said, they had a little bit of help from Luke Cowan-Dickie, who was not only yellow-carded but conceded a penalty try by leaping up and slapping down a high ball destined to be caught by Darcy Graham.
Scotland were seven points down just before the England hooker was sent to the bin, but soon after the referee’s decision drew them level, Finn Russell scored what turned out to be the winning score with a penalty for a scrum offence.
It was a triumphant conclusion to a game that began in disconcerting fashion for the home side, who were pinned back deep in their own half for much of the first quarter. England, although apparently intent on slowing every set piece down, were lively enough once they had secured ball in open play. But, in drier-than-expected conditions, they adhered to a game plan that was better suited to the forecast downpour, kicking away possession several times when they had an overlap. Late in that first half, stand-off Smith did take the right option with the boot, opting to seek out Henry Slade in the right corner, but his kick was marginally too high for the centre and the chance was gone.
Scotland were 7-3 up by that point, having fought back after Smith gave England the lead with a penalty awarded against Jonny Gray. The score came shortly after Ali Price had gone off for a head-injury assessment, to be replaced by Ben White. Debuts are always memorable occasions, but perhaps none more so than this one, as the London Irish scrum-half scored within minutes of coming on. Stuart Hogg started the move, Graham raced mazily forward to go outside Joe Marchant, then passed inside to give White an easy run-in.
Russell converted, then took his team into double figures with a penalty in the last kick of the half. Scotland were on the back foot again for much of the time in between those two scores, and came perilously close to conceding a try just after the half hour when a driving maul forced its way over the line. But four defenders managed to surround the ball, and the referee ruled it had been held up.
The second half began in similar fashion to the first, and Smith drew England level with his second penalty. Momentum was firmly with the visiting side at that point, and the stand-off emphasised the point with a try after another maul had trundled forward deep into the Scotland 22.
Smith’s failure to convert was a mildly hopeful sign from a Scots point of view, but the fact that England had got firmly on top without using a single substitute was an ominous one. Then, just after another penalty had nudged England into a 10-17 lead, Jones brought on four substitutes at once.
But if the coach thought his newcomers would kill off the contest, he was soon confounded when Cowan-Dickie batted away that high ball to Graham in the right corner.
With the hooker still off the field, England offended again, engaging early in the scrum to give Russell the chance to put Scotland 20-17 in front. That chance came after substitute Joe Marler had made a complete hash of a lineout throw, giving Scotland a free-kick from which the scrum penalty arose.
England were briefly penalised again in kickable range for Russell, only for the award to be reversed and Hamish Watson to be sanctioned for a neck-roll.
Cowan-Dickie was back on by that time, and England were resurgent as the clock ticked on to the 80-minute mark. But one late chance went when they sent a penalty to touch only for Scotland to win a lineout, and another was foiled right on full-time when, after that late scrum, Graham won a turnover on the deck. Hogg kicked dead, and the celebrations burst into life.
It was the first time since 1984 that Scotland had won back-to-back games in the Calcutta Cup, and their recent record against England is now three wins and a draw from the last five encounters. They will now travel to Wales in a confident frame of mind, albeit tempered by the remembrance of last year’s Championship, when victory at Twickenham was followed six days later by a home defeat at the hands of the Welsh.
Scorers: Scotland: Tries: penalty try, White. Con: Russell. Pens: Russell 2.
England: Try: Smith. Pens: Smith 4.
Scoring sequence (Scotland first): 0-3, 5-3, 7-3, 7-6, 10-6 half-time, 10-9, 10-14, 10-17, 17-17, 20-17.
Scotland: S Hogg (captain); D Graham, C Harris, S Johnson (S Tuipulotu 60), D van der Merwe; F Russell, A Price (B White 13-25, 64); R Sutherland (P Schoeman 52), G Turner (S McInally 52), Z Fagerson (W Nel 52), J Gray (S Skinner 64), G Gilchrist, J Ritchie (M Bradbury 60), H Watson, M Fagerson.
England: F Steward; M Malins, E Daly, H Slade, J Marchant (J Nowell 80); M Smith (G Ford 65), B Youngs; E Genge (J Marler 65), L Cowan-Dickie, K Sinckler (W Stuart 65), M Itoje, N Isiekwe (C Ewels 77), L Ludlam (A Dombrandt 65), T Curry (captain), S Simmonds (J George 70-77).
Referee: B O’Keefe (New Zealand).
Yellow card: England: Cowan-Dickie 66.