Alex Massie

‘The greatest 11-6 battering any of us can recall’: On England v Scotland

‘The greatest 11-6 battering any of us can recall’: On England v Scotland
Scotland’s Stuart Hogg celebrates after his side’s victory over England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images.)
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In retrospect, the 1980s were a thoroughly misleading period in which to grow up as a supporter of Scotland’s rugby team. Those of us who did so enjoyed a gilded childhood without even knowing it. By the age of 16 those of us born in 1974 had seen Scotland win two Grand Slams (in 1984 and 1990) as well as claiming a share of the five nations championship in 1986 (a year that really ought to have brought a further clean sweep). We had no inkling of our good fortune and international rugby seemed improbably well-arranged. 

Most of the years since have been lean and hard, an over-correction that seems excessive. If the 1980s were unusually fat, the 21st century has been a largely miserable experience. Occasional bursts of sunshine have been evident but, overall, it has been an endless winter. 

And nowhere has been colder than Twickenham. Scottish rugby teams have been visiting Mordor on a biennial basis since 1911 and, until today, prevailed on precisely four occasions. The old cabbage patch has been a graveyard, filled with the bones of countless Scottish teams. Many perished gallantly but no amount of gloss could, or can, change the essential facts. Whether they came in hope – for they never presumed to travel in expectation – or without even that precious commodity the result typically remained the same. 

But that ‘until today’ matters enormously for 2021 now joins 1926, 1938, 1971 and 1983 as a banner year for Scottish rugby. For these are the hens-teeth years of Scottish victories at Twickenham. As it happens, I was present as an eight year old in 1983 and I think my eight year old self would have cried had he been informed he’d have to wait 38 years for another Scottish triumph in south-west London. Beating England was never routine, not even in the sunlit 1980s, but of the first ten Calcutta Cup fixtures I saw, England won only four. Two further matches were drawn that decade but the overall record, in all competitions, since I first began watching international rugby in 1981 is pretty bleak: nine Scottish victories and for draws must be set against 30 English victories. Some of those were massacres.  

Today, magnificently, Scotland battered England. Truly, madly, deeply battered them. Scorelines are frequently misleading but a victory by 11 points to six gives no impression of Scotland’s superiority today. Not since 1986 has an England side looked this pleasingly clueless and bereft of ideas or inspiration. Scotland thumped them 33-6 that day, still a record margin of victory, but today’s encounter was every bit as emphatic and the scoreline be damned. 

The stands may have been empty – and perhaps that helped, for Twickenham is a dark place when filled - but there is no mistaking the fullness of Scottish hearts tonight. In the run-up to the game Eddie Jones, England’s coach, suggested history – that long litany of failure - might weight ‘heavily’ upon Scotland and not for the first time you senses Mr Jones was at it. Scotland had nothing to lose, save the opportunity of making this XV one to be remembered for years to come. It was England who, typically, were saddled with favourite status, not just for this match, but for the championship as a whole. Grand Slam England, some said. No-one else, not even the Welsh, is so fond of compiling the final table before the games have been played. 

Of course it should have been more. Eight points went missing from the kicking tee and innumerable Scottish trips deep into English territory went unrewarded. That owed something to yeoman English defence but the sense Scotland would rue missed opportunities – or missed half-chances, to be strictly accurate – nagged away until it seemed only a matter of time before England rallied and stole the game. That would have been an act of shocking larceny but there wasn’t a household in Scotland today that didn’t think it plausible. For we of much experience felt as though fate lurked around the corner, biding its time before kicking Scotland in the knackers. This is an immersive movie experience we have all been through many times. 

But not this time. What already sticks in the memory is the control with which Scotland played for most of the second-half. England - poor, miserable, England – were denied even a single try scoring opportunity. Scotland, by blissful contrast, married ambition with steely control. It could, perhaps even should, have been a 20 point victory but that mattered not at all. Five is four more than enough. 

England will have their days again. Of course they will and they should always win more of these contests than some of us might consider their fair share. But if they were inept today it was in large part because Scotland so thoroughly discomfited them. A former English coach – Geoff Cooke – once decried Scotland as nothing much more than ‘scavengers’ whose ambition scandalously rose no higher than thwarting England’s desire to play the game the way they wanted. That always seemed telling and Scotland’s forwards today earned the right to be mentioned alongside your John Jeffreys, your Fin Calders, your David Leslies and all the other bonnie scrappers of yesteryear. 

This has been a difficult year and this will be a strange, even discombobulating, championship. The camaraderie and the atmosphere that makes it something truly unique is absent. Where there should be songs and laughter - and a pint or two - there are empty grounds and missing visiting supporters. The internationals played last autumn were something close to a facsimile of real international rugby and there was a possibility the championship, that dear old thing, might have a kind of ersatz quality too. 

Well, not today it didn’t, for it was rugby blue in tooth and claw and all the better – so much better – for that. Social media acts as a kind of cathedral in these moments, a place where there can be a great coming together and all Scotland seemed to be there this afternoon. For we have been waiting a long time for a day like this at a place called Twickenham. 

The greatest 11-6 battering any of us can recall in many a year. Something to be remembered for some time to come. Brilliant stuff. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator.

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