Media playback is not supported on this device Six Nations highlights: Scotland 6-13 EnglandThere is a scenario familiar to most of us when we play snooker on a full-size table where the game appears so ludicrously difficult, so cursed by impossible physics, that the winner is simply the one who hits the fewest foul shots.England’s…
There is a scenario familiar to most of us when we play snooker on a full-size table where the game appears so ludicrously difficult, so cursed by impossible physics, that the winner is simply the one who hits the fewest foul shots.
England’s 13-6 win over Scotland at Murrayfield was a classic, in that no-one could remember a match quite as grotesque. It was a game where the maximum break was five. It was all cue balls into the middle pocket and ripped baize.
You could understand much of that. This was weather that a thousand years ago would have led to widespread sacrifices to appease the obvious fury of the gods.
As if awaiting its call from the wings, Storm Ciara held off all day in Edinburgh until the moment the two teams walked out onto the pitch, at which point it went kitchen sink.
First came the wind, snatching at the flags on top of the grandstand, stretching them out straight and then trying to tear them from their moorings.
The posts began to sway drunkenly. George Ford tried a high kick and watched it stop, turn around and come barrelling back towards him.
It was only a day to play rugby if you didn’t want to play rugby. It became a black evening when the only sensible thing to do was hunker by the hearth, possibly with tinned foods stockpiled.
Kicks came back as if they were on bungee cords. Others sailed wildly long, like astronaut Alan Shepard’s famous six-iron on the moon. Line-out throws fell off the fingers of the hookers or went sailing on gaily while the second rows underneath waved them past like spectators at a fly-past.
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First you felt sympathy for the players, professionals at the elite end of their sport reduced to stooges in some mad meteorological circus. Then you felt genuine concern that some might not make it through the frozen 80 minutes alive – the outside centres, lonely and blasted; the wings, all numb fingers and dizzy from kick-chases.
Scotland fly-half Adam Hastings lost the 10 from his back, the number scoured by wind and rain. Supporters in the lower tier of the East Stand, handed complementary plastic ponchos that the wind immediately tried to remove, eroded in front of your eyes.
All the time the errors kept coming.
There were seven Scottish handling errors in first half-hour. By half-time the home side had lost five of their 10 line-outs and turned over possession 10 times.
At this point it was 3-0 to England, when at the same stage in this fixture a year ago a cumulative 38 had been scored. One of the reasons was that neither fly-half had any chance of calibrating their kicks.
Owen Farrell missed one in the first half from 25 metres that began dead straight and ended heading for Leith. When Hastings landed one from half the distance in the second half it was as if he was taking aim from halfway.
Farrell had another later that required prop Ellis Genge to turn the clock back 40 years and lie flat on his stomach with hand outstretched to anchor the ball.
Such was the ferocity of the storm that he used three full fingers to keep it in place rather than the old-fashioned single fingertip, at least until the moment he pulled his hand away with a stage conjuror’s flourish and blew the already slim chance Farrell had of success.
As the second half wore on and sheets of rain billowed across the ground, the bleak comedy of it all grew. This was a game that 11 months ago finished 38-38, garlanded by 11 tries. With 20 minutes to go on Saturday you genuinely wondered where the next point was going to come from.
England, gale now at their backs, kept kicking the ball out on the full. Willi Heinz did it twice, then Ford, then Elliot Daly. The calibrations were so problematic that each of them looked baffled, at least until Ben Youngs came off the bench to play with sufficient margin of error. Go low. Keep it infield. Just don’t throw it up there, where it’ll be torn to pieces.
Scotland tried to play into the teeth of it. Predictably, they were unable to hang on to a ball squirting around like panicked eel. The handling errors raced into double figures and kept climbing. All the while the capacity ground sunk deeper in their seats and waited for it all to be over.
Just when you were wondering if referee Pascal Gauzere might blow for full-time 15 minutes early, so the contest could be peacefully put down, England’s power told.
Their scrum had gradually been asserting the logical dominance of having a replacements’ bench that features six forwards. Stuart Hogg was initially relieved to have conceded a five-metre scrum rather than a try when fumbling the ball under his own posts, but Genge was never going to be stopped with ball under arm from three yards out, not with Maro Itoje and Ciara at his back.
And that was enough. There was still time for Hastings to kick the ball away with his side needing a converted try to tie the match and retain the Calcutta Cup, and for Genge to opt for a trademark careering gallop cross-field when England just needed to run through three pick-and-goes and boot the ball off the field, but it was that sort of game.
Senses had been untethered. Nothing was functioning normally any more.
There is a favoured line in sport about winning ugly. This was a game that could crack mirrors.
Eddie Jones won’t care. Ugly looks beautiful when you’ve just got your championship hopes back on track. On a day that was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, England had escaped.