TWICKENHAM, London — This was the maddest of matches on the maddest of days, but that’s the magic of Super Saturday in the Six Nations.
The title had already been won by the time England and Scotland took to the Twickenham turf but that didn’t stop these two great enemies from playing out what was perhaps the most unbelievable and entertaining match of this year’s tournament, in what ended with a 38-38 draw and Scotland being denied their first win at Twickenham since 1983 in the final seconds.
But it should never have been that close. For the opening 30 minutes, England took out all their frustration from Wales securing the Six Nations title and unleashed it upon Scotland in the most dominant, intense and ruthless attacking spell of this year’s championship.
What unfolded after that, their collapse and Scotland’s stirring 31-point comeback, is hard to explain but will be remembered for generations. Eddie Jones looked on baffled at how his England side unravelled and Twickenham fell to a hush as Scotland clawed their way back. Scotland boss Gregor Townsend also looked on in quiet disbelief at what was unfolding, and at how Scotland came within seconds of their biggest and most famous win of recent times.
It seemed that the most important match being shown at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon was the one being projected onto big screens outside of the stadium, with the Six Nations title on the line in Cardiff and Wales needing a win to secure the Grand Slam.
England fans arrived at Twickenham in their droves two hours early and hoping to take pleasure of any Welsh slip-up in Cardiff. If that happened, England would have a clear run to a third championship in four years. Scotland’s role in the day’s proceedings was thought to be minimal either way.
Any chance of Wales offering England a chance was killed within two minutes thanks to Hadleigh Parkes’ try and if there was Irish frustration building in Cardiff at the untidiness of their play, that was ratcheted up another notch among the England fans. There were howls and groans after each Irish error, of which there were many, as England’s hopes of recapturing the Six Nations title slowly died and the atmosphere outside the stadium fell flat.
Undoubtedly those inside England’s team bus would have looked on downhearted when they rolled past the big screens midway through the first half to see a big fat ‘0’ next to Ireland’s name. They needed a big result from the defending champions and by the time Ireland scored their first points in the 82nd minute it was all too late and the Grand Slam belonged to Wales. Many in the crowd had already turned their backs on the screen and were trudging into the stadium, teeth and fists clenched at such a disappointing Ireland performance.
The reality, though, was that the result was always going to be out of England’s control. Jones is not a man or a coach to sit back and see what happens and the Australian had a glint in his eye on Thursday as he discussed the visit of Scotland. Those who know him understood exactly what that look meant: Jones was preparing his side to score as many points as possible against the Scots, whether the title was up for grabs or not.
It perhaps helped that England were facing the side who stung them at Murrayfield last year to win the Calcutta Cup for the first time in 10 years. Jones also would not have forgotten the abuse he suffered as he left Edinburgh the following day. He planned for this to be his retribution.
And for a while it was. England opened with the intensity of a side who were down a score with only minutes left to play. They were fast, furious and unrelenting. Lineouts were taken quickly, backs charged for the line desperate to score and Owen Farrell kicked for goal as if his life depended on it.
There was the performance of the outstanding Jack Nowell, whose try after just 65 seconds set the tone of what was to initially come. That was followed by scores from Tom Curry, Joe Launchbury and Jonny May, a fluid break which ended with Henry Slade’s outrageous behind-the-back pass. England were strolling and were averaging a point a minute.
Scotland were simply blown away in the opening half an hour and it would have been easy for them to simply give up and fold even more. They have had more than their share of hard luck this tournament with an abundance of injuries but not for one moment did they feel sorry for themselves. When captain Stuart McInally charged down Owen Farrell’s kick and ran it straight back for Scotland’s opening try, the celebrations looked ridiculous as the Scots were 26 points down and had a mountain to climb. There were also shades of the 61-21 defeat two years ago. The scoreboard was against them and so was history.
But history is there to be rewritten and Scotland were seconds away from doing that. Darcy Graham scored what could have been one of their greatest ever tries and Sam Johnstone scored what would have gone down as their most important with the score that gave them the lead, an iconic moment that would have stood alongside their Grand Slam-winning team of 1990.
But the most ridiculous of matches also deserved the most ridiculous of endings. With Scotland fans dreaming of pulling off the impossible, England found another gear when they needed it most. Their intensity returned as they marched into Scotland’s half and piled on the pressure. In the end, with penalty advantage after penalty advantage, it was George Ford who crossed to break Scottish hearts and spare England’s blushes.
The draw did not alter the championship standings — England still finished second and Scotland still finished fifth — but don’t believe for one second that what unfolded at Twickenham did not matter.
This was a game that is almost impossible to dissect or understand, but the respective coaches and analysts will still endeavour over the next few weeks and months to try and find some important answers, with the World Cup now the next competitive outing for each team.
But for one night only, it feels nice to embrace the unexplainable. This was a match that will be remembered as one of the all-time greats, and you can imagine Jones and Townsend sharing a joke as they look back fondly on what unfolded tonight in years to come.
What happened at Twickenham? It was one of the most thrilling, remarkable and unexpected matches the world of rugby has ever seen, and it’s okay to admit that we just don’t quite understand it.