Scotland travelled south to Twickenham – so often the graveyard of their dreams – with little in the way of expectation surrounding them for the final round of the Six Nations. Wales had already sewn up the Grand Slam in Cardiff with a dismantling of Ireland so England, in theory, had nothing to play for save the Calcutta Cup trophy itself.
As for Scotland, could they find a reason to be optimistic at the end of a poor Six Nations?
Not judging by the start, as Scotland were cut open by England’s first possession: Sam Johnson rushed out of the line and left a hole which sucked in Grigg and McGuigan and ended with Jack Nowell scoring a simple try after just 66 seconds.
As starts go, it was about the worst possible, but then this was to be the worst half of rugby by Scotland since the last trip to Twickenham at least, so the tailspin continued with a simple England penalty to the corner and a lineout drive at some pace notching up a second (converted) try inside 10 minutes.
All Ali Price could do was box-kick it back to them, as England ran through their training routines. Joe Launchbury scored a third after 14 minutes.
Despite their failure to actually start playing the game, you had to feel for the players – the game looked done as a contest by then. It would be hard not to want the Twickenham turf to swallow them up.
We know how Scotland usually fare when they’re chasing a game and England were not in charitable mood, not even with first choice loosehead Ben Moon going off early. Scotland’s inability to stop making blunders had only previously meant that they hadn’t sneaked undeserved wins from other teams not playing that well, but having finally found a backline blend that suits them, ruthless England were hungry to counter-attack and well able to do so.
There was a worry that in soaking up English pressure Scotland would be, as they were against Ireland, too tired to capitalise should they finally find some momentum later on. It didn’t help when, given a decent attacking platform inside the English 22 – their only one of the half – Scotland chose a cute lineout move that they failed to execute correctly. A few quick passes later and Jonny May was diving over the line at the other end.
England looked like the Harlem Globetrotters, and Scotland were three drunk guys shooting hoops in the local park at 4am.
There was a glimmer of something just before half time as Stuart McInally charged down Owen Farrell, then ran it in from half way. It was nice to see, but felt like the sort of comedy try by an overweight prop you cheer ironically, not a sea change in momentum.
How wrong can you be?
Half-time: England 31-7 Scotland
To say it was a different story in the second half would be a severe understatement. It was like fifteen completely different players came out of the tunnel.
Strong carries in the 22 from Grant Gilchrist, and Sam Johnson ghosting through a half-gap found the sharp-footed Darcy Graham just enough space to dart over in the corner.
Scotland managed somehow to regain possession from the restart, a resurgent Magnus Bradbury powered forward before Ali Price chipped over the English defensive line, asking questions where previously there were just question marks. He regathered with men on his shoulder then Bradbury cut a perfect line on to his pass and ran in for a third Scotland try. This looked more like the Scotland we had wanted to see.
Townsend rung the changes after 55 minutes, with Gilchrist and Price taken off and the cavalry on in the shape of Greig Laidlaw, Jonny Gray and Fraser Brown on.
Fresh legs only seemed to help Scotland, as England looked a little shaken. Their gameplan to kick the ball to Scotland was now playing into Finn Russell’s hands, who got “luckier” with the things he tried as England got more tired.
When Darcy Graham secured a try bonus on 57 minutes, then Finn Russell juggled a wayward pass from Ben Youngs, intercepted, and ran in the fifth try three minutes later, it was scarcely believable.
Gloriously, improbably, the scoreboard read 31-31.
There was a little breathing space as Owen Farrell and Darcy Graham collided off the ball which ultimately gave Scotland a penalty in a kickable position. Laidlaw put it wide of the posts and missed the chance to take the lead, but it continued the positive momentum for Scotland. Ultimately, it would have made the difference.
There was a lot of kicking, as neither side wanted to make that error that gave the game away but at least it no longer looked like men against boys. Whisper it, Scotland almost looked confident.
Eddie Jones dumped his finishers on with 7 minutes to go and the game was precariously poised. Who would blink first?
In the end, Simon Berghan stepped up. The big prop ripped the ball in the tackle. Sam Johnson ran another lovely line off a well disguised pass from Russell and managed to power through two defenders to dot down between the posts.
Scotland were in the lead with 3 minutes left.
All they needed to do was keep the ball from an England side who hadn’t scored since the 30th minute. Unfortunately a penalty awarded after 80 minutes meant a draw would be the minimum result. Kicking to the corner, England battered through repeated phases of penalty advantage until George Ford found a hole in front of the posts. After the helter-skelter of what had come before, that seemed almost inevitable.
From 31-0 down away from home it was, so nearly, the greatest comeback to win in the history of international rugby.
It finished 38-38; you won’t see a more contrasting two halves of rugby in your lifetime.
Referee: Paul Williams (NZ)
SRBlog Man of the Match: Scotland would have been nowhere without Finn Russell pulling the strings in the second half. His “looking one way passing the other” ball to Johnson for what was so nearly the match-winning try was one of a number of superb moments. Magnus Bradbury, Sam Johnson and Darcy Graham were all excellent in the second half too. Can we just forget the first?