The five nastiest Murrayfield takeaways that most sickened England
Defeat for England at Murrayfield in the opening round of the 2022 Guinness Six Nations will be sickening for them. They were coasting midway through the second half, the lead retaken after the Scots had held it for 35 minutes on either side of the interval, and the previously raucous home crowd had largely been silenced.
Then came oblivion, a nasty end-game that was more error-ridden England’s fault than out-and-out Scottish sheer brilliance. Plain speaking, the visitors bottled it and their review will require plenty of looking each other in the eye. Here are five aspects they should hotly debate:
THE 23-MAN GAME MYTH
England boss Eddie Jones is one of these coaches who talks ad nauseam about how modern-day Test rugby is a 23-man sport. Except it really isn’t when push comes to shove. Just look at how the Australian deployed his finishers on Saturday. It took 64 minutes for the first alterations to occur, Jones subbing off four players in one go – including lone scorer Marcus Smith – with England firmly in control.
But then there was very quickly panic and rabbit-in-the-headlights type management: the dithering in holding Jamie George back when there was a massively important throw to be taken, the decision to only give Charlie Ewels four minutes in which he had an important catch stolen, the bizarreness of seeing Jack Nowell only introduced on the wing with the clock in the red at that messy final scrum, and the sight of poor young Harry Randall left stewing in his tracksuit and totally unused.
The brutal message it emitted was that the rookie scrum-half couldn’t be trusted to a job, which was strange given how Jones had no trouble hooking Ben Youngs early versus the Springboks in November and allowing the equally inexperienced Raffi Quirke to do his thing by lifting the play with Randall-like tempo and energy. Not giving Randall a shot was a mistake and it just endorsed how this 23-man importance chat is blarney.
The headline appears very odd in the sense that the England scrum and lineout went very well with the starting pack, but it suffered in the key late-game moments. Hooker is a specialist position – the No2s spend their careers throwing in at the lineout so for Jones to deem it unnecessary to get George on for that throw in the England 22 with Luke Cowan-Dickie in the bin was a diabolical black mark for the coach who at least admitted post-game he did get this call wrong.
But here’s the rub. With George eventually coming on, England went on to concede the scrum penalty that gave the Scots their matching-winning lead and then just after Nick Isiekwe was taken off, they had the lineout stolen after they elected to kick to touch with a penalty rather than have George Ford shoot for the posts.
Isiekwe had been England’s main lineout fetcher, taking seven catches to Maro Itoje’s six, so removing him with the result in the balance was a major thing and they were found out as sole throw called on replacement Ewels on 78 minutes was stolen. It was another late key set-piece trauma that was deeply wounding.
Jones has reckoned on Thursday that England could bank on two things: set-piece dominance and a better aerial game. Well, their set-piece wobbled at the point in time where it needed to be at its most reliable while the aerial battle was lost in that single moment when Cowan-Dickie was positioned on the wing and inexplicably batted the ball into touch to earn a yellow card and concede a penalty try.
REPEAT FIRST DAY YIPS
If it was mentioned once it must have been said a billion times in the build-up by England that they had enjoyed a great two-week preparation leading into the match in Edinburgh. If so, they must be training like Tarzan and playing like Jane. Losing one round one match could be excusable but the damning fact was this was the third season in succession where Jones’ team lost the opening match of the championship.
It was France who did them dirty in round one 2020, Scotland repeated that dose twelve months ago and the Scots have now gone on to do it again, a sequence of first-weekend knockbacks in need of some root and branch scrutiny.
There is surely something wrong somewhere when a team of England’s calibre is drawing a first-day blank three seasons on the bounce, meaning not since 2019, when a bruising, bullying England physically shattered Ireland in Dublin, has Jones got his Six Nations day one right.
The worry now is that similar to last year, when England had Italy in round two after losing to the Scots, they have that same fixture against the Azzurri next up, meaning it won’t be until from rounds three to five that real amends can be made for what devastatingly unfolded at Murrayfield.
BLUNT FORCE ATTACK
The arrival of Martin Gleeson from Wasps on the England coaching ticket was seen as the missing link necessary to transform an attack that was depressingly blunted throughout the 2020/21 campaign.
Just six tries were scored in the four matches last spring other than the six versus Italy and the ineffectiveness witnessed on Saturday in Edinburgh, where just one try was scored despite so much dominance, will reignite concern that things really haven’t improved despite signs in the November shootout win over South Africa that new ways of skinning the cat in attack were being developed.
England were way too structured and predictable against the Scots and there was something gravely agricultural about the sight of twelve white jerseys joining in that first half maul which got held up over the line.
Gleeson has spoken about utilising space and width to jazz up the attack but despite England enjoying a ruck speed of 0-3 seconds at 64 per cent of their rucks on Saturday, there was little or no game-breaking creativity to be seen when it mattered despite twelve minutes of possession in the opposition half compared to Scotland’s six minutes and 45 seconds.
NOT MANAGING THE REF BETTER
Jones has placed a big emphasis on expanding his squad’s leadership group, making a huge deal about having a plethora of vice-captains to back up whoever is captaining the team, and there was much love for the influence Tom Curry seemingly wielded in the build-up to round one when stepping up from vice to first-time matchday skipper.
That is all well and good as regards internal matters but the big test of a skipper’s role is the dialogue with a referee over the course of a match. There is a certain way of doing this well but England have suffered at Six Nations level.
Look at how Owen Farrell didn’t get on so well last year in Wales with Pascal Gauzere and on Saturday’s evidence, Curry was too easily marshalled by Ben O’Keeffe rather than the rookie skipper being able to have a more influential rapport with the official. This isn’t Curry’s fault, being just a 23-year-old suddenly thrust into the limelight due to injuries elsewhere. Relationship building takes time, as does the knack of being cute and saying the right thing at the right time.
Eighty minutes at Murrayfield was a challenging place for the back-rower to start this difficult learning process and it didn’t work out, the lack of a penalty award in the game-ending scrum series an illustration of the lack of captaincy clout on the day. A more authoritative skipper just might have swung the decision from set-piece reset to match-drawing penalty.
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