England fans with any perspective knew Scotland would not be an easy adversary – Andy Robinson’s team were playing for pride, which they regained, proving they are better than recent results suggest. But those who believed a first Grand Slam since 2003 was a formality will have had their faith severely tested. The messy game, saw an error prone England overcome Scotland, a Scotland that finished within a score of a team who are preparing for a campaign to reach the World Cup final this autumn. Ireland, who host England next week, will fancy their chances. The 3 games previous demonstrated England are a team reformed, but the most recent Six Nations fixture shows that there is still much to be done.
Scotland can argue that luck wasn’t on their side, and in fairness, it wasn’t. Gray, Kellock and Barclay all competed to the bitter end at the breakdown, with marvellous loose work particularly from Richie Gray. However, all this was disrupted by a puzzling sin-bin for John Barclay who had constantly menaced the England pack. It was here that Scotland were exploited. Haskell turned on some of his best form, arguably his very best in an England shirt, despite later commenting that “It was so tough that I just wanted to sit down and die”.
Winning ugly in international rugby is not frowned upon, primarily because it involves winning. However that is not the only positive for England’s team, who battled hard against a dogged and determined Scotland, learning how to close out a tight game. In reality, however, England have shown they have flair; scoring 12 tries already this championship, thank you Mr. Ashton. In return conceding only 3, these are the two best scores in the whole of the Six Nations.
This highly efficient defensive mentality must be maintained in Dublin, not a single tackle was missed on Sunday. If England intend to overturn an Irish team, still smarting from the result in Cardiff, impenetrable defence will be integral. As well as being mindful of Ireland’s ability to force turnovers, one player holding up the ball carrier, preventing him from going to ground, and another ripping the ball.
Dublin, the doom-merchants will say, will be where England unravel. With the Irish looking to capitalise on what, no doubt, has been perceived as a weakness at the breakdown. Martin Johnson will of course beg to differ. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. An attitude that the once captain drilled into every single player he partnered with on that fated Australian evening in 2003. He had better drill that same mentality into those 15 English men in Dublin a week from now, or face a bitter journey home.