A cold but raucous and filled to capacity BT Murrayfield stadium, beneath a glowering February sky at the unusual kick off time of 4.50pm: the opening to Scotland’s RBS 6 Nations campaign.
A well placed high kick from George Ford instantly put Scotland under pressure and a free kick at the scrum went England’s way, which perhaps went against the gameplan for the stocky WP Nel and chums to best all before him.
He made amends at the next available opportunity as referee John Lacey awarded the first penalty on the Scottish 22 and Scotland had some ball to play with, Laidlaw trying a box kick of his own and a strong chase from Sean Maitland giving Scotland a lineout in the English half.
With the forecast rain not yet apparent it was England who cut loose, quick lineout throws and complex dummy runs giving lie to Eddie Jones claimed intent to restore the glory days of a domineering English pack. It also meant Scotland spent much of the opening ten minutes deep inside their own half, but perhaps that was okay when England’s repeated phases yielded no more than a drop goal attempt.
The Scotland scrum didn’t yield but the defensive line was more forgiving when first Billy Vunipola then George Kruis battered through their tacklers, the English lock stretching out to score the first try.
Their Captain “Fantastic”, Dylan Hartley, was pinged for not rolling away on almost the next play, giving Greig Laidlaw a chance to get Scotland on the board, and he duly knocked it over.
A good spell of play by the Scottish backs – sparked by a John Hardie run at First 5/8 – earned another penalty and this time they were content to take an attacking lineout of their own, but to the despair of the vocal crowd the English defence held firm.
Both teams were playing good rugby but the Scots were perhaps guilty of over-enthusiasm just forcing errors whenever they got into a strong position. It was very familiar, but the team were also playing with a degree of confidence in their own skills that carried over from the World Cup, and has been a hallmark of Cotter’s reign.
His plan of playing dual opensides in Barclay and Hardie was paying off with Scotland contesting strongly and securing their own ball, while his faith in talented but out of sorts players like Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg was also rewarded as they offered minor moments of brilliance that set the grey old place alight.
One such chase from Hogg gave Laidlaw another shot at goal, but he uncharacteristically missed from a fairly safe distance, valuable points missed in a game that despite all its intent was never high scoring.
Seymour picked a brilliant line from a lineout drive but again the spilled ball, which was part fumble part strong defending by Jonathan Joseph (in what were pretty reasonable handling conditions) let the men in navy down inside the English 22.
If the handling was at fault, Barclay and Hardie were an utter nuisance at the breakdown and England were never guaranteed quick or safe ball, even forcing a penalty for holding on to peg it back to a single point margin before half time.
Hardie exploded from base of a maul and put Scotland into a great attacking position in front of the English line, but as with the France v Italy game before it, the whistle went after a sclaffed drop goal wide of the posts – Russell was a more likely proposition to kick it, but sadly the end result was just as ugly and perhaps a cooler head was necessary for the boost a half–time lead would have given.
Half time: Scotland 6–7 England
Scotland came out after the break with some serious attacking intent, continuing the trend of using Richie Gray and John Barclay as strong gainline runners and quick ball to Hogg and Seymour through the hands of Finn Russell. It was bright stuff, but for all that they were still behind when it might have been 12-7.
For England, Vunipola was carrying well while Denton was quieter, and while Hartley had the wrong side of a couple of decisions he was putting in a lot of work as an example to his teammates. Out back Joseph and Watson looked deadly on the little ball they had, but Matt Scott was marshalling the defence well and Hogg tidied up at the back on more than one occasion.
Owen Farrell missed a penalty on 48 minutes but England were not to be denied two minutes later when pace man Jack Nowell scythed round the corner and even Hogg couldn’t get to him in time. Farrell again missed the kick this time from the touchline which kept the margin to just 6, but the momentum was creeping away from Scotland slowly but surely and with their bench already partly empty, England were looking spritely.
Confident enough to go for the corner, England put together a punishing series of drives that had punishment for Scottish bodies in mind but Finn Russell intercepted and his speculative hoof danced into touch perhaps earlier than fellow chaser Hogg might have liked.
The penalties were mounting with Jonny Gray on a warning for pulling down the increasingly robust English maul, and with Reid on for Dickinson the scrum was looking less assured too.
Suddenly those six points were looking like a big ask, but Laidlaw clawed three back on 68 minutes after England were penalised for one of their commonplace offside defenders.
As usual, Scotland undid most of that good work immediately by Russell failing to deal with a high ball – something that had been an issue all game for the team as a whole – but the Scots put huge pressure on at the scrum and ensuing phases of play that they were able to clear to safety.
Things had a hint of turning when Owen Farrell shoved Laidlaw into touch off the ball and then Mike Brown made a fudge of a clearance kick and the Scots had some possession; but again came the nightmare knock on.
When they needed the scrum most, it crumpled, and even the boos drowning out “Sweet Chariot” took a while to make themselves heard. In a game that had much for Scotland to be pleased with, it was still frustratingly familiar with a win just out of grasp.
So it was with a couple of minutes left that Eddie Jones’s feared weapon, the English pack, reverted to type and powered through the phases around the Scottish 22.
Tired and battered, the frustrated home side were powerless to stop them.
SRBlog Man of the Match: Stuart Hogg was a livewire all game and one of the few to do well under high balls, not always his strong point, but for the workrate, ferocious tackling and high speed attacking and offloading that must be Scotland’s blueprint going forward, John Hardie is the archetype.