Confounding pessimism and back line heroics: Scotland’s sweetest victory

Lewis Thomas 25 February 2018

England came, England saw, and England were roundly spanked.

The last time Scotland won the Calcutta Cup, I was in primary school, Gordon Brown was still PM, and “Mercy” by Duffy was at the top of the charts. Woolworths still existed, for Christ’s sake. So Sunday’s victory isn’t just nice for what it does for Scotland’s position in the Championship, punting us into third place and within sniffing distance of England, but also because that it’s been so long in the coming, arrives after a decade of too many lows and not enough highs – wooden spoon contention; tryless losses; a 61-21 gubbing at Twickenham last year.

This season, things have been different. A heart-breaking loss to the All Blacks fuelled victory over Australia, and Scotland went into this year’s tournament with something to prove. A loss to Wales in the first round raised doubts, before victory over France sent hopes rising and pulses quickening. But Wales and France are small-fry compared to the English – this is the grudge match, the one that the season turns on. And it played like it.

It started off well – Jones took Russell’s pass to score the first try, with Laidlaw’s conversion succeeding a clinical penalty earlier to make it 10-3. England played catch up, with Farrell slotting a penalty to make it 10-6. Then England pushed up, white shirts piling forward on to the Scotland 22. For Scottish fans, this felt familiar – an early lead giving us a happy few minutes before it was snatched it away. England pushed to the 22 – a try seemed to emerge. But Barclay, like some heaving beast from the deep, snatched the ball and Russell sent it 40 metres downfield. Suddenly, the match changed – England had gone from threatening a try to having blue shirts screaming to their tryline, with Maitland scoring to put it 15-6.

If England were fazed, they didn’t show it. The match soon found itself back on the Scottish 22, and a try once again loomed. And Barclay got the ball again! Offload to Russell, and then to Jones.

Huw Jones. Born in England with a Welsh name (I sympathise) and, after yesterday, one of Scottish rugby’s golden boys. He took Russell’s pass and, well, couldn’t be stopped. Brown and Watson tried to down him, but he kept on going. And he scored.

The interval came and went, the second half rolled in. Scotland fought for every inch; England explored every gap. When Farrell scored, English ears pricked up – this was it. Farrell would score, the Scottish confidence would go, and England would once again nick a victory.

But the Scots held. A penalty and Underhill’s sin-binning gave the men in blue some breathing room, and England were unable to break through. They tried, but they couldn’t make it. Sustained by suicidal defending, breakdown mastery, and what seemed like sheer blind faith, the lead held: 25-13.

Then the whistle went, Scotland lifted the Cup, and grins split faces all over the country.

So what made the difference? Russell, Jones, and Barclay, certainly. Russell has redeemed himself, Jones has set himself out as a star in the making, and Barclay dominated the breakdown.

This was a match won in the fundamentals. When Scotland needed to move the ball, they moved it. When they needed to tackle an Englishman, they tackled him. When the last ounce of strength was needed, it was found. It was a triumph of grit over style – of the underdog over the giant.

It was Picts in the mist, keeping the Romans behind Hadrian’s Wall. It was the Schiltroms at Bannockburn, refusing to budge in the face of Edward’s knights. It was grim fatalism and slogging, punctuated by flashes of brilliance, against glittering style and the assumption of victory. It was a team which played like men possessed until the final whistle.

It was, in short, a classic. England came up to Edinburgh with hopes of victory – of an eighth Cup in a row, of the Triple Crown, of the Grand Slam. Of the same walk to the championship they had last year. They left with their heads down, their tails between their legs, and a potent reminder that for all their pretensions at being the Northern Hemisphere’s All-Blacks, they are still eminently beatable.

This may be a new dawn for Scottish rugby – God knows we deserve one. But whatever it is, and whatever happens over the rest of the tournament, one thing remains: We beat the English. And that’s the sweetest victory.