England’s bold new era got off to a winning start in Scotland thanks to great defending, insipid Scottish attacking and a dollop of good, old-fashioned luck. Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson isn’t complaining!
There’s an old sporting adage that says it’s better to be a lucky coach than a good coach. And while it’s perhaps too early to comment on England Interim Head Coach Stuart Lancaster’s technical abilities, it’s maybe not so soon to say that luck appears to be on his side. And given his new-look England side’s performance against Scotland at Murrayfield this weekend we might also assume that luck comes in threes.
First, Scotland were sloppy and slapdash all over the pitch, unable to execute any of their moves with precision, which allowed ‘New England’ a relatively easy ride in their first match. Second, Charlie Hodgson managed to profit from a rather hopeful chasedown when the hapless Dan Parks failed to clear his lines and gifted the England fly half a simple touchdown. And third, Scotland substitute Greig Laidlaw had a score quite rightly disallowed when he couldn’t apply downward pressure to the ball. But Laidlaw did brush it with his hand and missed out on a score by mere millimetres. On such moments games can turn. But let’s not forget either that England went some way towards making their own luck, working like dogs from first minute to last, showing a collective will that bodes well for the future, while also giving the odd glimpse of a brighter future ahead.
Lancaster won’t be 100% satisfied with what his team gave him, but he will know that an away win at the outset of a brand new era will be more vital to him than a scintillating performance that still results in defeat. Pragmatism is a word that’s been pretty much banned around the England rugby team all of a sudden. It brings back too many memories of the previous regime, apparently. But Lancaster will know deep down inside that this first, highly-pragmatic victory in the 2012 Six Nations was just what the doctor ordered.
There will be any number of plus points noted in Lancaster’s little black book. Owen Farrell lived up to the hype by showing a cool head and an accurate boot once he’d found his range, notching two penalties and one conversion. Skipper Chris Robshaw made his presence felt at the breakdown and wasn’t found wanting when it came to showing the aggressive Scots that he wasn’t about to take a backward step either. Ben Foden ran the ball more than we’ve seen him in the last 12 months combined, though to be fair this might have had more to do with Dan Parks’ awful kicking than anything else. Mouritz Botha made the odd daft error, but overall produced an impressive display that gave England some real second row beef.
On the negative side, Chris Ashton looked out of sorts and made some poor decisions at times. And his opposite wing partner David Strettle didn’t get enough ball to do real damage. But it’s logical to assume that a more expansive game will come when the players have worked together for longer, so nothing to get too upset about, really.
Next week’s game away against Italy promises to be another scrappy affair if their defeat against the French in Paris on Saturday is any kind of indication, despite the Azzurri’s new coach Jacques Brunel trying to put a bit more of an expansive slant on his team’s game. I won’t be expecting anything too exciting in terms of game patterns, though. England will be forced to duke it out again and hope that their superior talent will tell in the end. Lancaster won’t be too concerned if that’s the way things work out. You’re not under pressure in the Six Nations when you play away from home. Winning is the sole objective. But when Wales come to Twickenham on February 25th the likelihood is that England will need to find some swagger to match their undoubted commitment. Still, let’s not put the cart before the horses just yet. The win in Scotland will do just fine for now and sets a solid base for the rest of the tournament.
Lancaster, meanwhile, has stated that he’ll be applying for the England job on a full time basis and while he’s been regarded as a real outsider for the position from the off, no-one should forget that professional sport is a results-based business. If the affable coach can get his team firing and post, say, four wins on the board in this Six Nations, then he’d have a very compelling case for being given the task of leading England permanently. The man in situ surely has more cards in his deck than anyone else if things are going well. Of course if things go badly, then the Scotland victory will be quickly forgotten. But let’s not head in that direction for the time being. An England win against Scotland in Edinburgh has been a rare event in recent times. And alongside Lancaster and his team, I for one am going to savour the moment for as long as possible.
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