LONDON — Twickenham is again painted blue, and there’s no room for asterisks. In front of a packed stadium, Scotland were patient and pounced when England looked vulnerable. England, in Steve Borthwick’s first match, were in the contest right to the end but ultimately, Scotland had more familiarity, experience and the cutting edge of that wonderful wing Duhan van der Merwe.
Back in 2021, Scotland ended their 38-year wait for a win at Twickenham, but the stands were empty. Gregor Townsend referenced that earlier this week. There was a sporting asterisk — deniers saying something along the lines of, “yes Scotland won, but…” This time, though, there can be no caveats. Scotland recorded a famous 29-23 win and showed again further signs of their evolution. England have won just one of their last matches against Scotland — the balance of power is north of the border, and the Calcutta Cup is draped in blue.
Scottish memories of this match will be anchored around that Van der Merwe try. “It was incredible wasn’t it?” Townsend said. “It reminded me of playing Jonah Lomu rugby where suddenly one player can go quicker. It was amazing and one that gets the Scotland supporters going crazy, and silences everyone else.”
Twickenham has seen some astonishing individual moments, but this is up there with the best of them — and the best thing about it is, depending on the tint of your glasses, you will have a different perspective on it. For every neutral or Scotland supporter who will sing this try to the rafters, you will find an England fan bemoaning the tackling, or non-existent tackling. England cleared in field, Kyle Steyn caught the ball near the halfway line and popped a pass to Van der Merwe. With open field in front of him, he went through two flailing England arms, and then through another trio of helpless England defenders and crashed over. It was an astonishing effort, but England’s defence coach Kevin Sinfield will have kittens over how the Scottish winger was allowed to score from where he collected the short pass.
His second was a wonderfully taken, patient effort. A tremendous finish in the corner in the 74th minute, with Finn Russell adding the extras to give Scotland their six-point winning lead. From there England went back at Scotland, but their defence stood tall, ultimately an aspect of the game which separated winner from loser.
But this was a Scotland win built on far more than a pair of Van der Merwe tries. They were patient, their substitutions were well-judged and ultimately, they took their chances. At times it was rope-a-dope rugby. They did not waste possession, were happy to let England have plenty of ball in the middle third, but they went toe-to-toe in the key areas and found the edge. Then there was the heroic defence — Matt Fagerson came away with 27 tackles, the outstanding Luke Crosbie with 20 while every other starting forward was in double figures.
They have been building to this. The result and manner of victory really should not come as a surprise given where both teams came from heading into this. The pre-match talk was around the slim margins between judging who would be favourites for this match. Scotland finished their autumn Tests with a storming win over Argentina, and a hard-fought defeat to the All Blacks. England ended theirs with boos ringing in their ears, and a fortnight later Eddie Jones was dismissed.
This was always going to be a tall order for new-look England, despite having home advantage in a fixture a decade ago they would have expected to win handsomely. But they looked like the team they are: a group finding some familiarisation, with new coaches, in a fresh environment with the previous plan ripped up in shreds.
There were some signs of Borthwick’s blueprint here. You could see they wanted to play with more urgency and for their first two tries, they played with patient rugby — looking to draw Scotland and then pouncing through Max Malins’ double. Ellis Genge’s second-half score was a powerplay, but they will be wondering exactly how they let Scotland back into this game having led 23-19 with 12 minutes left. The defence looked shaky — a system still being implemented there — and while they looked a little more sturdy in the set piece (remember their scrum had just 85% success rate in the autumn) they are learning. Borthwick wanted the players to play with pride, intensity and efficiency, and they did that. But this defeat will hurt.
England have Italy next up in eight days — it will be the next step of their early journey under Borthwick. England will come good under Borthwick, but this match ended with a feeling far too familiar. But he will take heart from how the crowd took to the team, and the recognition of how they answered his pre-match challenges.
For Scotland, they will ride this good-feeling into their match next weekend against Wales. “It’s just the start,” captain Jamie Ritchie said. They’ve dispatched one team in transition, and will fancy their chances of making it two from two.