By Ben Coles
A first win for the Lancaster regime took plenty of blood and guts but was far from the convincing performance many would have hoped for. In all honesty, England’s performance was a realistic reflection of their current state: a new team learning new combinations, which despite a considerable amount of goodwill and hard work will not gel instantly.
England’s defence overall was very good, but fell short of top marks due to the amount of lapses that led to Scottish opportunities. Against better teams with a more clinical attacking edge, they would have been behind on the scoreboard by a considerable amount. Credit must go to Ben Youngs for doing his upmost to prevent Greig Laidlaw scoring a try, with the TMO ruling there was not enough clear downward pressure to award it. In other areas however, Youngs failed to truly control the tempo of the game from scrum-half.
Why? Well, principally because England were fighting a never-ending siege at the breakdown from the physical Scottish pack. Chris Robshaw’s ripped shirt may well become an iconic image of this year’s championship. In picking the lighter Phil Dowson over the heavyweight Ben Morgan, England lost some grunt in the rucks and it showed, as the Scottish pack led by Richie Gray and Man of the Match David Denton pummelled them. This battle slowed down England’s attack significantly, limiting them to few breaks and chances to unsettle a solid Scottish defence.
The one moment when Scotland were rattled, though, was Charlie Hodgson’s chargedown, leading to the only try of the game. Overall, Hodgson’s return to the national team was positive. His defence, so long the bête noire of his game, was noticeably improved as he put in a series of eye-catching tackles in the first half. With Parks dithering close to his line, Hodgson pounced, with a favourable bounce setting him up for the score. This really was England’s only chance, and fortunately they took it.
In fact, Hodgson played a big part in their change of tact when they had the ball in the second half. With the wide game trying to use David Strettle and Chris Ashton leaving England isolated at the ruck, Plan B’s initiation was the right call and it paid off. Bringing in Morgan, and Geoff Parling to an extent, helped in this area whilst Robshaw along with Alex Corbisiero, Mouritz Botha and the impressive Brad Barritt kept it direct and hit hard.
Overall, Barritt was by far the most impressive debutant. Not the flashiest of centres, but his power in the midfield was invaluable. The Saracen seemed to produce a string of big hits (he was England’s joint top tackler with Tom Palmer on 13), the most of the whole England team on 13 with Tom Palmer, and proved he can cut it at the breakdown when he forced Scotland to concede a penalty for holding on late in the second half. Going forward, he must start, preferably alongside another centre with a strong dose of X-factor such as Manu Tuilagi or Jonathan Joseph.
That is no slant on Owen Farrell, who for such a young man delivered under the greatest pressure when he landed the 40-metre penalty late on to stretch the lead to seven. A couple of missed kicks should not detract from what was a solid debut, and switching him to fly-half for the final ten minutes was a good move by Lancaster.
For next week, Morgan must start ahead of Dowson in the only real change to the XV. Toby Flood’s return to fitness could see him form a new midfield combination with Farrell, but the Hodgson-Farrell-Barritt unit is so efficient it seems wrong to change it. If England can control their own ball better, and dominate more at the breakdown, then Italy should give them few problems. But fail to front up and they will be punished.