Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
World World



Billy Twelvetrees: 'Ed started pre-season with us and and nine months on he’s really struggling. Jesus Christ.'

The former England and Lions centre, leaves Kingsholm a legend after over a decade's service, and in that time he has matured into a man

RugbyPass+ Home

This, surely, is Scotland's time to come of age

By Jamie Lyall
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 04: England players look on as Jamie Ritchie of Scotland lifts the Calcutta Cup after the team's victory during the Six Nations Rugby match between England and Scotland at Twickenham Stadium on February 04, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Davidson - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

You couldn’t take your eyes off WP Nel. As blue-and-white glory erupted all around a rapidly emptying Twickenham, it was the wizened tight-head prop with the meaty midriff and the 1970s headband whose poignant embrace was beamed across the world.


Down on the touchline, the Scotland players walked over to where their relatives were housed. The camera showed Nel, towards the back of the shot, surrounded by team-mates but with eyes only for the person in front of him. A broad grin across his face, wife Alana’s arms around his neck, perhaps the beginning of a tear swelling in his eye. Deeply personal joy amid collective euphoria. Nel is a reluctant hero. He was the epitome of Scottish toughness on a day when he would not have started had Zander Fagerson been fit, when he should not have been asked, once more, to anchor the visiting scrum two months short of his 37th birthday. Nel is a quiet man with a stoic demeanour and to see him so moved spoke to the magnitude of the Scotland victory.

For this was a stupendous day for Scottish rugby. The kind of day Scots dream about but have been stung too many times to ever dare expect. Four tries at Twickenham; the grand old stadium conquered again and the Calcutta Cup retained. For all Scotland’s recent dominance of the fixture, it felt like a defining triumph. It felt a little different to the wins that came before.
The numbers show the belligerence of Scotland’s defence and the ruthlessness of their attack. They had 43 per cent possession, 29 per cent territory and spent one minute, forty-four seconds in the English 22. Seventy percent of the Scottish ball came inside their own half. Yet they outscored England, notched twice as many points per 22 visit, made three times as many line-breaks, conceded fewer penalties and stole two lineouts while throwing a perfect 10 from 10 themselves. Given Steve Borthwick’s genius set-piece status, that was some going. Without the ball, Scotland attempted over 250 tackles and missed only 22 for a brilliant success rate of 91 per cent. It’s not quite rope-a-dope stuff but it’s remarkable nonetheless.

Video Spacer

Video Spacer

Gregor Townsend plumped for his deadliest attackers, a gutsy move when this game so often demands brawn before beauty. How his boldness paid off. Whenever Scotland strung phases together, which happened too scarcely, they had the look of a world-class attacking operation. A unit capable of wounding the best defences in the game.
Ben White’s service was slick and his awareness sharp. Leaving out Ali Price was Townsend’s bravest call; White justified it and then some. Finn Russell did not have a stormer but he sucked in English blitzers and got the ball to the edges smartly, where the strike runners laid waste. Kyle Steyn brought dynamism and heft in place of the stricken Darcy Graham. Sione Tuipulotu was rocked early on by Freddie Steward but burnished his credentials as a Test-level centre with some lovely flourishes of class, not least in trickling through for Huw Jones to score the opener. It was a startlingly similar try to the one Tuipulotu laid on for Sebastian Cancelliere three weeks ago as Glasgow sank the Stormers at the death.

And then we come to Duhan van der Merwe. The winger is, in the kindest possible sense, a freak. A man that big should not be able to move that quickly. A unit so heavy should not run with such balance. A bloke who hasn’t played in a month, due to injury and his marriage back in South Africa, should not blaze back to the Test arena with such fire and fury.

Of the 30 players on the pitch – perhaps of all the players in this wonderful championship – nobody else could have scored Van der Merwe’s first. A one-man, 60m obliteration of England’s kick-chase. A wild buffalo trampling a pack of wolves. Five defenders sidestepped, swatted, or simply steamrolled by Scotland’s colossus. It was the sort of worldie you score on Rugby 08 with the difficulty set to easy, not in real life against the sport’s best resourced side.
Few wingers would have gobbled up Van der Merwe’s second either, but there’s a great inevitability whenever the big man gets in these positions. It was a majestic score, wonderful in a different way. Play swept from one flank of Twickenham turf to the other. Steyn’s lung-busting break down the right. The gilded hands from Fraser Brown, then Richie Gray, then Matt Fagerson, to give Van der Merwe a crack at the line down the left. This was the Scotland Townsend has been striving to sculpt. The attacking claws the coach has sought to sharpen ever since he set foot in Murrayfield’s corridors of powers. A born-again Gray delivering a catch-pass, with the game at stake, in the 75th minute, was the blueprint in microcosm.

This elan was underpinned by grunt too. And sheer bloody-mindedness. Scotland came back at England over and over, refusing to be cowed. They were intoxicating to watch. Their big men went to work in the trenches. Jamie Ritchie was a totemic presence.
Scotland’s starting pack nailed 136 of their 141 tackles. Each forward hit double figures. Fagerson, an immense performer, made an eye-watering 27, Luke Crosbie put in 20, Pierre Schoeman 19. Even Nel, the old-timer, managed 10 across his 59 minutes. In the backline, Jones, much-maligned for his defence made a dozen without missing.

Gregor Townsend – PA

We shouldn’t kid ourselves here. This latest Calcutta Cup epic could have been England’s just as the 2022 edition might have, maybe should have, at Murrayfield. In a way, though, that’s what makes the win so exciting. There’s a huge capacity for growth and improvement in that Scottish performance. They failed to win the territorial battle and turned over ball too easily when they got over halfway. They ceded metres to England cheaply at times. They blew a scintillating score when Stuart Hogg’s inside ball went slightly behind and through the hands of Steyn. Russell had his ropey moments. Hogg had an astute but understated game. Price, Graham, Rory Sutherland, Hamish Watson, Sam Skinner and Sam Johnson played no part.

But consider this: if Scotland can score four tries at Twickenham and do a number on England with 30 per cent territory and virtually no red-zone ball, what might they muster with momentum and field position and a glut of attacking phases? What heights might this group scale when it fires on all cylinders?

“We spoke a lot about raising our floor, our minimum level of performance, but our ceiling is a lot higher than that,” said Townsend.


The coach has taken a beating over the years. Some of the barbs were perfectly justified. He was castigated for the meek 2019 World Cup and savaged over his frayed relationship with Russell. But his record in the game’s oldest grudge match is incredible, historic even. Played six, won four, drawn one, lost one. Unbeaten in three at Twickenham. The barren 38-year streak at ‘HQ’ torpedoed and the only blemish a slugfest in the Edinburgh drizzle three years ago. Such a run was utterly, ludicrously unthinkable to an entire generation of Scots. As recently as ten years ago, you’d have been examined for a lobotomy scar if you forecast this kind of tartan supremacy. But on Townsend’s watch, it has become the new normal.

In sacking Twickenham, Scotland have begun the Six Nations with the same mighty roar for a third year running. In 2021, they followed up the hoodoo-busting win with a horrific collapse against Wales. In 2022, they pipped England then went down to Cardiff and served up muck. The pattern cannot – must not – repeat itself.

Duhan van Der Merwe
Duhan van Der Merwe – PA

Wales are wounded, but dangerous. There was enough in their wasteful loss to Ireland to hearten Warren Gatland. He has never lost to Townsend and never lost to Scotland in twelve meetings as Welsh supremo. He is as wily as they come and his team will grow into the tournament as only Wales can. Gatland’s return to Murrayfield will be the true test of Scottish progress.

Scotland must seize, at last, the consistency that has eluded them throughout the Townsend era. They must follow one statement result with another, no matter how ugly. They must show they deserve the respect denied to them by many in the rugby world, who point to their constant fluctuations and capitulations and say a champion team does not behave in this way. Up until now, it is hard to counter that accusation.

If this group of players want to rid themselves of the tag, splatter those lingering doubts and make themselves contenders, this is their time to come of age.


Join free and tell us what you really think!

Join Free
RUGBYPASS+ Billy Twelvetrees: 'Ed started pre-season with us and and nine months on he’s really struggling. Jesus Christ.' Billy Twelvetrees: 'Ed started pre-season with us and and nine months on he’s really struggling. Jesus Christ.'