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Whoops, Eddie Jones, it's happened again as England implode

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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Whoops, Eddie Jones, it happened again. Whereas the Australian’s reign as England coach started out with some extravagance when it came to keeping the Scots under his thumb, the 2017 61-21 bonanza being the type of pummelling that would have had Wiliam Wallace spinning in his grave, recent years have not been as kind. 

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Swagger-sapping defeats in 2018 and 2021 and a brutally damaging draw in 2019 were the type of mishaps that no England coach can excuse and his labelling of the Scots as favourites coming into Saturday’s renewal of Test rugby’s oldest fixture was no mind game, more a recognition of how the tables really have viciously turned results-wise in this Calcutta Cup joust. So it proved.  

England were coasting, 17-10 clear with a dominant second half period that had overturned a 6-10 interval deficit. And then they inexplicably imploded, an absence of leadership from on high in the stands and out on the pitch seeing them crash and burn in the most devastating fashion to lose 17-20.

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There were just over 16 minutes left when Jones hooked four players in one substitution, that extraction including Smith who had led the fightback and was the scorer of his team’s entire 17-point haul. He was gone just two minutes when the lead evaporated, Luke Cowan-Dickie adjudged to have illegally batted the ball into touch with Darcy Graham looking to collect the crosskick and score. 

Penalty try and yellow card was the double-whammy decision of referee Ben O’Keeffe, a wound made all the more painful by how sub Jamie George had been pointed at by team boss Richard Hill to get ready when England were still in control but the call to substitute Cowan-Dickie at that juncture didn’t happen. 

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Even when they then had a defensive lineout in their 22 minutes later with the scores level at 17-all, they elected to have prop Joe Marler throw the ball in rather than sub someone and get George on. The result? The ensuing free from the botched throw led to a scrum and then a penalty to shoot the Scots ahead on 72 minutes. It was calamitous and it still got worse. England snubbed a game-levelling shot at posts from the ten-metre line for a kick into touch where they terribly lost the ensuing lineout.   

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And then following a series of reset scrums with the clock in the red where they were refused a penalty by the referee, their backline attack was lame, the ball ultimately getting lost and it was left for home skipper Stuart Hogg to get passed the ball and boot it high into the stand behind the goal at 6:39pm to leave Scotland fans in the capacity 67,144 attendance deliriously cheering to the rafters.

Jones had been booed into the ground by the home fans when England were bussed into Murrayfield some three hours earlier and he would have been booed out by the away fans if they had hung around long enough to see him off the premises. The heel of the hunt was he had ultimately got it badly wrong with his strategy and he must now shoulder the blame.  

The XV he had chosen was a case of something old (the presence of forwards Nick Isiekwe and Sam Simmonds, whom Jones had lasted started in a Test match four years ago), something new (the inclusion of Smith as a playmaker with Freddie Steward as the gatekeeper), something borrowed (novice leader Tom Curry getting the captaincy with Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes laid up) and something blue (the coach insisting that his team was “very equipped, a young but good side”.

They weren’t as good as he had anticipated on a wet, windy and bitterly cold day where no sooner had the Murrayfield gates opened for business at 1:45pm did an already drenched army of people clad in winter woollies teem in for an afternoon of rich winter pageantry, the bagpipes, the beers, the Irn-Bru and all the rest that goes hand in hand with creating an intimidating atmosphere for the auld enemy. 

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England were collectively booed off their bus, Scotland acclaimed like champions when they arrived and that rumbustious cheering was still going strong many hours later when the Calcutta Cup was handed over to them yet again, igniting giddy aspirations that their mid-March trip to Ireland in round five will be this year’s title decider rather than the clash of France and England in Paris on the same day.  

Martin Gleeson’s appointment was meant to continue to shake up the England attack in his campaign involved but there was largely no spark here as the dominant emphasis was instead on an overly structured play that could only take them so far. For instance, they made the more convincing start to the match despite the concession of the contest’s first penalty when Kyle Sinckler was bottled up on the deck, but the rewards were miserly and not enough to steer them clear from the damagingly decisive second-half ambush. 

Jones had chirped that the set-piece and the aerial game were the two advantages that England could definitely bank on and there was early evidence. Having stopped the Scots dead at a maul, England won two frees and then a penalty at the three opening scrums held in quick succession on the same spot of turf. Maro Itoje led the boisterous cheers, followed quickly by a few bars of Swing Low from the visiting fans. 

Some angled kicks in behind the cover from Elliot Daly also caught the eye and all this pressure eventually gave Max Malins an unrewarded sniff at the corner. This dominance boded well but worryingly England’s only early show on the board was a 17th-minute penalty kick from Smith after the Scots had illegally played Ben Youngs.

Soon, this meagre lead vanished. Scotland are always at their most dangerous when conjuring unstructured play and having huffed and puffed with structure, they exploded to life with a George Turner quick throw that snapped England’s concentration.

The ball found its way to Graham and Ben White, the debut-making ex-England U20s who was temporarily on while Ali Price was having an HIA. What ensued was glorious Six Nations pandemonium, the pair skittling the defence with dancing feet, the sweeping combination jinking and weaving to the line for White to score the try added to by Russell for a 7-3 lead against the run of play. 

If that was unfair on England, when Scotland trooped off 22 minutes later for the break, they had become good value for the 10-6 score they held. England persisted with too much structure – a grubber from hooker Cowan-Dickie was one rare untoward thing they attempted, a twelve-man maul held up over the line another. 

As before, they were left settling for three penalty points from Smith, Jamie Ritchie done for hands in the ruck, but Scotland had the last say, Russell punishing Sinckler for over-indulgence at a breakdown. Still, it set the scene beautifully for the second period and it was England who initially rose to the occasion. 

Smith kicked a penalty and then darted over for an unconverted try on 53 minutes after the England maul had sucked in cover. Now behind after leading for 35 minutes, it was time for Scotland to jazz things up. They ratcheted up the passes, shifting the ball more quickly, but sealing off and an offside had Smith back on the tee and stretching the margin out to seven with just over 16 minutes remaining. 

That should have been that the result done and dusted in favour of the visitors. Instead, England disbelievingly imploded and a damned Jones was sent homeward to think again. Whoops!

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