Some notes on the game between England and Scotland from the opening weekend of the U20 6 Nations.
The England pack dominated the scrum in the time Jack Walker spent on the pitch. His influence could be deduced from the two put-ins Scotland had while he was in the sin bin: they were able to set a much better platform and generate solid ball. At times Walker physically dominated his opposite number, Jake Kerr; one scrum in the second half stands out, where Kerr lost his shape and was driven upwards at a sharp angle to concede a penalty. Walker also played an important part in what was a solid lineout for much of the evening. He found his jumpers well, and blindside flanker Archie White was often used as an effective target. The English pack also showed some clever variations: on two occasions, the lifter of the front pod (loosehead prop Tom West) turned and received a low throw from his hooker to win clean ball.
In open play, second row forward Stan South of Harlequins was a physical and disruptive presence, while also showing impressive handling ability when he found himself at first receiver. No. 8 Callum Chick – who will captain the side this week in the absence of injured captain Walker – made some strong carries, and White showed excellent awareness and handling skills in executing a blind offload over his right shoulder to the supporting Charlie Thacker in the second half. Josh Bainbridge – the third member of the back row – showed an ability to get good body position at the breakdown in attack and effect a quick clean out.
Their back line struggled to create openings against a very strong Scottish defensive effort – the midfield of Tom Galbraith and Rory Hutchinson in particular tackled strongly throughout the duration of the game. The coherent movement of the inside defenders, coupled with excellent line speed, was able to thwart an English backline which focused on bringing wingers George Perkins and Ollie Thorley into the game in the midfield. Perkins showed a good work rate and tracked play well off the left wing, and on one occasion in the second half showed his open-field running ability with a break from broken play.
England’s best chance of a try came from a set piece move in the second half when Mat Protheroe – who moved to 10 after the exit of Joe Simmonds – put Joe Marchant through a hole on an unders line. This hole was created by Perkins’ arcing run into midfield, which held the attention of outside centre Rory Hutchinson. Too often, however, the timing of runs was slightly off and lead to passes being dropped and dominant tackles being made by the defence. Protheroe showed glimpses of why he is such a highly rated prospect – his quick first step and natural playmaking intuition in particular – but also did not look completely comfortable at fly half. His running lines became more lateral when looking to bring others into the game, and looks a player whose skill set is better suited to the 15 shirt.
The Scottish pack struggled to compete with a strong English performance at the scrum, but put in a physical and impactful performance around the park. Second row forward Andrew Davidson (who will move to the 6 shirt for the game against Wales this week) in particular excelled in his defensive and carrying duties. Often the home side were able to win the collisions on the advantage line, and dealt with the dangerous England forward runners by doubling the ball carrier. Their back row performed well as a unit: Matthew Smith at 7 finished his try very well after peeling off the back of a maul, and in defence he hunted effectively with no. 8 Ally Miller. There was one instance in particular in the second half where they worked together very well; Smith put in a strong tackle on the ball carrier and Miller was quick over the ball to force a penalty. Jamie Ritchie started at blindside flanker, and with an excellent disruptive performance showed why he has been involved regularly with the Edinburgh first team so far this season. He was a nuisance at the breakdown when England were on the attack inside the opposition 22, competing well and slowing ball when the visitors were looking to break the line, and in attack he carried strongly. The pack also showed good skills with ball in hand at times during the game, with Davidson again to the fore.
Scotland picked three players in the backline with experience at fly-half – Adam Hastings at 10, Rory Hutchinson at 13 and Blair Kinghorn at 15 – and as a result it is no surprise that they impressed with their distribution. Hastings again showed why he is such a highly rated prospect with a composed performance in attack; he executed a beautifully timed pass from a set piece move in the first half to free an outside runner, and almost orchestrated a counter attack try in the second. After the ball was kicked deep to Kinghorn, Hastings identified the space outside England’s initial chasing defenders; he called for the ball from his fullback immediately, and was able to beat his man before chipping ahead over the cover defender. The ball just ran dead before the fly half could touch down, but his communication and identification of space was very impressive in this sequence.
Hutchinson (who will start at 10 this week) formed a very strong defensive partnership with inside centre Tom Galbraith; the 12 put in a huge number of successful tackles as England chased the game. Playing Hutchinson at outside centre helped the home side’s distribution in a number of facets, but among the most notable was the way in which it aided their exit plays. From a scrum on the left of their own 22, they were able to spread the ball right to Kinghorn, who could clear the ball effectively from the opposite 15m channel. The Edinburgh fullback kicked with good distance out of hand all evening, and covered kicks well in defence. His movement and positioning led to the first Scottish try, after Simmonds attempted to find his left winger with a low cross-kick. Kinghorn read the play well and streaked up the right touchline, combining well with Hutchinson – who had run a good support line – before finishing in the corner. Kinghorn and scrum half Hugh Fraser aided the Scots’ harrying defensive effort by sweeping well behind the line and scrambling to make tackles; this was an important aspect of their efforts to stop England crossing the try line in a sustained period of pressure in the second half. The scrum half saw the opening that generated their third try, taking a quick tap penalty and keeping the ball alive with a skilful offload before captain Scott Cummings crossed a few phases later.