England 16-12 Scotland, Rugby World Cup, October 1
Gutsy England dig deep to keep hopes alive
Graham Jenkins at Eden Park
October 1, 2011
Scotland's Sean Lamont is on the receiving end of a big hit from England's Manu Tuilagi © Getty Images
England have ridden their luck all week so what is an extra day between auld enemies?
Martin Johnson's side have spent much of the last seven days avoiding punishment for their attempts to pull a fast one against Romania last time out and good fortune was clearly still on their side as they edged out the Scots at an electric Eden Park.
Needing a victory and to deny England a bonus point to book their passage to the last eight, Scotland came out firing and had their fierce rivals rocking with a ferocious first half display that splintered the England scrum and revealed some alarming cracks in their lineout. The foundation for much of what has been good about England in recent memory suddenly looked as if it had been built on sand with the impressive Scots and the inclement weather conspiring to embarrass them. England lost four of their own scrums and three lineouts on their own throw during an opening 40 minutes where they looked far from world beaters.
An impressive level of intensity also reaped rewards in the loose and negated England's attempts to use a significant breeze to their advantage. Seemingly endless penalties and free kicks denied England any kind of foothold in the game and had Scotland possessed more of an attacking threat they may well have ended the half with a much comfortable advantage than six points.
But England's biggest concern was the form of England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson who continued to hack away at his own reputation with another bad day with the boot. His kicking percentage continues to drop dramatically as if thrown from the top of Auckland's Sky Tower and given his manager's undying loyalty; both must be hoping his form was attached to the bungy before it took the leap.
Admittedly, some of his efforts would have tested the most in-form of form kickers but with a return of 9 successes from 20 place kicks the time is surely upon us when his captain leads and makes the call on whether he goes for the posts and not the No.10 himself? Such a move may be more divisive than productive and may even be redundant should Toby Flood return to the playmaker role for the showdown with France.
With his side staring at World Cup oblivion, Johnson was faced with the most important half-time rallying call of his tenure. It obviously hit the right note because England wasted no time in finding the urgency that was painfully absent from their first half showing. But it is perhaps assistant coach Graham Rowntree that should take a bow having worked over time with the polyfilla and filled those ominous cracks in the England forward pack. The result was a gutsy comeback, the like of which we have not seen before and one that suggests that this largely inexperienced squad continue on an upward curve in terms of development.
England's resurgence was led by flanker Tom Croft whose superb all-round ability and unmatched industry almost single-handedly resurrected his side's quest for world domination. His stats do not do his performance justice with two crucial game-changing tackles and a lung-busting effort to deny Scotland a try all key moments in deciding this contest.
Chris Ashton's cameo is also worthy of note and not only because it keeps his hopes of claiming the World Cup try-scoring record alive. The England speedster hardly saw the ball all night with the battle in midfield the focal point for much of the game but far from lose interest in the game; he remained alert to any opportunity and finished in style when claiming the match-winning score.
The timely introduction of fresh legs - not always out of choice - also helped to swing the contest with the likes of Dylan Hartley and Tom Palmer adding grunt up front while Flood showed his class in seamlessly finding the pace of the game and delivering the most important pass of the night.
The defeat will be all the harder for the Scots to take coming just six days after their equally agonising loss at the hands of Argentina. They faced a tough challenge coming into the game and it got even harder with first-choice fly-half Ruaridh Jackson's game ended through injury with less than five minutes on the clock. The loss of a player who was destined to play a significant role in an expansive game plan so early on in proceedings could have been a hammer blow to their hopes but they weathered the storm and the introduction of Dan Parks did little to curb their enthusiasm for the task ahead.
Parks, fullback Chris Paterson and centre Joe Ansbro delighted in capitalising on the endeavour of their forwards but in the end it was an all too familiar story as their limited arsenal was blunted by a resurgent England side. A flight home does not seem a fair return for one of their most impressive displays since Andy Robinson took charge but they only have themselves to blame. Chances came and went and if they continue to offer sides a way out with lapses in defence then they can have no complaint about failing to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
England may not have produced their best rugby in booking their place in the last eight but at this stage that is not important. Awaiting them in the quarter-finals are France who are reeling from back-to-back pool defeats and they will hold no fear. It could yet get a lot better for England.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.