There was little expectation that Scotland would beat England on Saturday and in the end the victory was comprehensive, with a scoreline of 58-7. This is to be expected as England are several years further along in their professionalisation journey than Scotland, who have only just started.
We can’t change the lack of investment in the past and because of that, there is little point in talking about this game as if the teams were evenly matched. Both were missing key players, but England have more experience to draw on, both at international and Premier 15s level which didn’t help Scotland close the gap.
Instead, it seems fairer to talk about the extent to which Scotland met what they would be hoping from with this match, given the very different levels at which the teams are coming from. That means looking at some of the positives, but also where they didn’t quite meet the standards they would have set themselves. Here are some key talking points.
Red Roses remain impressive because investment works
The remainder of the article focuses on Scotland. But it’s important to note that the reason England can dominate is that they have been well-funded for several years which means they are a well-oiled machine, with multiple ways to break a team down, and years of extra time practising all the little extras that give a team cohesion.
That investment is also seeing a financial return with a sold out match in Newcastle, and over 40,000 already sold for La Crunch at Twickenham. The match did see the end of one era for the Red Roses as Sarah Hunter played the final match of her 16-year international career, one which has spanned the move into professionalism and one through which she has been an incredible role model, a brilliant player who has worked on every skill she can and has always been a gracious, positive character in both victory and occasional defeat.
New attack shows potential
Scotland have a new attack coach in Chris Laidlaw, and a new 10-12 partnership of Helen Nelson and Meryl Smith and it did show some promising signs in the face of some at times brutal English defence.
Both took their turns at first receiver and both showed a willingness to mix up running, passing and kicking, making the Scottish attack much more unpredictable than before. Nelson had a really assured game and was one of the players where you feel you can already see where professionalism is having an impact.
When the attack worked, dummy lines were also often sharper than in the past, there was a really good use of cute inside balls and just more deception and variety than we’ve often previously seen. When they got the attack going at pace – as shown in the move where Emma Orr nearly scored early on – it looked very impressive.
With Emma Orr running good lines and distributing well, and some excellent hard-carrying work from the likes of Louise McMillan, Rachel McLachlan and the tirelessly impressive Evie Gallagher, it has the makings of something special, and something that can in fact break down those defences outside the leading two teams.
This was the first run out for these new attacking shapes, and it was a new backline, so as it becomes more practiced, sharper and more consistent, and the players have more game time together, we should be looking at some exciting, entertaining and successful rugby from Scotland.
Youngsters and newcomers step up
Outside of Helen Nelson and Chloe Rollie, the backs had very few caps between them, and the back line included two teenagers, one on debut. But they rose well to the challenge they faced. As mentioned above, Smith and Orr showed what they could do in attack.
Orr has already shown in the past how good her tackling and defence could be, and she did this again, but it was great to see her all round game developing further. Fran McGhie had one of the toughest jobs in rugby defending a channel with Jess Breach and Abby Dow running down it, but they got very little space and made little progress as McGhie made good use of the touchline as an extra defender and ensured she was rarely caught out.
It’s said how much less time players have when they step up to international rugby, and you could see it at times with the newcomers finding themselves a little rushed. But you could also see them adapting in real time and starting to find ways out of trouble. There is no substitute for international experience in training your brain and muscle memory to instinctively play at international speed, and they’ll be better players next game for the experience of having the likes of Lagi Tuima and Sadia Kabeya pressurising the occasional hesitation or loose pass.
Off the bench, Beth Blacklock cut a couple of brilliant lines and looks an impressive addition. And in the forwards, despite only recently returning from a lengthy lay off, Evie Gallagher picked up where she left off after an excellent Six Nations last year, with some impressive carrying and work at the breakdown. Elliann Clarke and Anne Young looked solid in the scrum, and Eva Donaldson got on at least one of her trademark pacy runs at lock.
Resilience on display
One of the reasons I’m able to try and find some positives in this game was because Scotland finished so strongly. Scotland somehow found a new gear, looked the more energetic team and played some of their best rugby in the last ten minutes. They were helped by England going down to 14 players through injury, but that isn’t exactly a gimme for their opponents since they still nearly managed to win the World Cup despite an early red card.
After such a battering earlier in the match, heads could have gone down, and after well over 200 tackles in the match, bodies must have been sore and tired. But instead Scotland looked pacy, exciting and resilient, scoring an excellent try through Chloe Rollie who looked back to her best, and nearly scoring a couple more.
A concern last year was coach Bryan Easson’s reluctance to use his bench, but this time, not only was it emptied, they made a real difference, with the likes of Liz Musgrove, Eilidh Sinclair, Mairi McDonald, as well as Blacklock and Clarke mentioned above, bringing running and energy and upping the tempo back to where it had been in earlier attacks. It’s just a shame that what we saw at the start and end wasn’t seen a bit more consistently through the match, as that would have been some test match!
Defensive standards need to return
There were, however, more than a few elements where Scotland did not play to their potential or standards and that will need to be fixed sharply. England have incredible forward carriers but they were allowed over the gainline far too consistently. Scotland also couldn’t put enough defensive pressure on England’s new midfield. Last year, Scotland had the second-best tackle completion rate after England and missed 76 tackles across the tournament. On Saturday, they missed 45 tackles, which is not good from a team that prides itself on its defence.
That allowed England 13 line breaks, as well as contributing to some of the tries. The softest was that by Tatiana Heard, even allowing for it being good footwork and good finishing. That started probably Scotland’s worst period of the match, the second quarter of the first half, where mistakes started to be compounded in defence and attack and England just got on too much of a roll.
Defence seemed less consistent, the intensity dropped a little and what attacking play they had seemed a bit hesitant and ragged. That period, and parts of the early part of the second half, were below what Scotland should expect from themselves. It gave England too much easy momentum, and the performance was well below the more impressive periods they managed in the first 15-20 and last 10 minutes.
A consistent platform needed
As might be expected against the Red Rose juggernaut, Scotland got very little platform from their set piece. The lineout held up given there was no lineout queen Emma Wassell, but only once gave a really good attacking platform.
The scrum got munched a few times and parity was intermittent, although they did win one penalty.
The reason for disappointment was set piece seemed to hold up a little better in the same fixture last year and is a strong suit for next opponents Wales, so improvement will be needed for next week. Scotland’s rolling maul has been a potent weapon in recent games against Wales, and will be needed again as the foundation of a strong performance.
The other issue was a frustrating number of attacks that broke down as Scotland perhaps tried to force things as the game went on. Some of this will have been down to new shapes bedding in, but Wales are a very in-your-face team, and Scotland will have to remain composed and not let them take advantage of mistakes.
If they can cut the mistakes, and find some consistency, then we should have an exciting game on our hands this Saturday back home at the Dam Health stadium.