Another Scotland team left Twickenham this afternoon with a crushing sense of disappointment as they opened their RBS 6 Nations Championship campaign on the wrong end of a four tries to two scoreline.
Scotland could point to the regal renaissance of Stuart Hogg, their youngest player, at full-back, a debut try for Sean Maitland on the wing and some typical industry and honesty from Greig Laidlaw at scrum-half as reasons for optimism ahead of next week’s visit of Italy to Murrayfield but interim head coach Scott Johnson made no attempt to sugar-coat where today’s result had been determined.
“If we do not win the contact area then we’re not going to be in the contest. They won contact, won field position and we could not get out of our own half for long enough,” he said.
It begged the inevitable question: “Can it be fixed in one week?” and, again, Johnson did not dodge or obfuscate.
The answer would be found on the back pitches at Murrayfield by “good old-fashioned hard grunt” in the preparation for the Italy game, he noted.
Scotland and the Azzurri have been locked in many an arm wrestle since the Italians joined the Six Nations in 2000 and Johnson’s message is clear. If Scotland don’t correct their ills at the breakdown by winning that area, then there will no miracle cure to enable some of the encouraging elements of their play to flourish.
England today were more kale-yard than country garden to very good effect, leaving Scotland on back-foot rear-guard territory for too long.
Scotland were led out by prop Euan Murray who was winning his 50th cap, the 33rd Scot to reach that landmark.
They fell behind to a second minute penalty from the England stand-off Owen Farrell but hit back with a stunning try.
Hogg blazed up the right and though his break did not gain instant reward, Scotland did not panic, recycled and, when the opportunity arose, Laidlaw probed shrewdly on the narrow-side to send Sean Maitland in at the corner.
Scotland’s lead lasted all of four minutes as Farrell landed his second penalty, rapidly followed by a third but as the opening quarter concluded, Laidlaw had popped over his first penalty and thus exceeded the 100 points mark for his country.
For ten minutes, Scotland lived dangerously, too passive in defence, and England punished them with a Chris Ashton try on the half hour, which Farrell goaled, repeating the dose when Johnnie Beattie was pinged for a high tackle.
Beattie redeemed himself with a Harlem Globetrotteresque one-handed rampage which led to a breakdown penalty against the hosts which Laidlaw nailed for 11-19 at the break.
Scotland needed an energised start to the second-half but, instead, after being penalised almost at once, they again found themselves under the percussive English cosh and Billy Twelvetrees bulldozed over for the second debut try of the afternoon, Farrell again adding the extras.
It was looking ominous as Joe Launchbury crossed the line on 52 minutes but the try was ruled out for an act of indiscipline by England, which wasn’t immediately clear.
When Scotland needed to consolidate at this juncture, they were turned over in midfield, Ashton made yards on the right and ball was transferred left for Geoff Parling to add their third try, Farrell missing the conversion (England 31 Scotland 11, 53 mins).
Scotland did pull back another sensational counter-attack try on 70 minutes. Captain Kelly Brown won a turnover deep in their own territory, substitute David Denton and Ruaridh Jackson linked and Maitland was set free.
The winger kicked ahead and Hogg was rewarded for a blistering chase by winning the touchdown for the ball. Laidlaw converted and at 31-18, perhaps Scotland had a sniff.
Indeed, with just over two minutes remaining had Beattie been able to latch on to a stray English pass we might have been destined for an anxious last minutes for the inhabitants of TW2.
Instead, England thundered back on the attack and the match ended with a try from their substitute scrum-half, Danny Care, under the posts, man of the match Farrell converting for a haul of 18 points.
Scotland have injury problems too ahead of next Saturday’s match at Murrayfield with back-row forward Alasdair Strokosch (face) and hooker Dougie Hall (knee) forced to retire from today’s proceedings.
England: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees, Mike Brown; Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw captain, Ben Morgan.
Subs: James Haskell for Morgan (45 mins), Dylan Hartley for T Youngs (53), Mako Vunipola for Marler and Danny Care for B Youngs (both 57), Courtney Lawes for Launchbury (64), Toby Flood for Twelvetrees and David Strettle for Goode (both 68) and David Wilson for Cole (74).
Scotland: Stuart Hogg; Sean Maitland, Sean Lamont (all Glasgow Warriors), Matt Scott, Tim Visser (both Edinburgh Rugby); Ruaridh Jackson (Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby); Ryan Grant, Dougie Hall (both Glasgow Warriors), Euan Murray (Worcester Warriors), Richie Gray (Sale Sharks), Jim Hamilton (Gloucester), Alasdair Strokosch (Perpignan), Kelly Brown (Saracens) captain, Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier).
Subs: David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby) for Strokosch (13), Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby) for Hall (47), Alastair Kellock (Glasgow Warriors) for Hamilton (55), Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors) for Laidlaw (73) and Max Evans (Castres) for Hogg (78).
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).