Defensive brilliance and attacking opportunism steer Scotland to Calcutta Cup history

Not since 1984 had Scotland beaten England in consecutive Calcutta Cup matches but that 38-year hoodoo was ended in style at the weekend with a battling 20-17 victory at BT Murrayfield.

Not since 1984 had Scotland beaten England in consecutive Calcutta Cup matches but that 38-year hoodoo was ended in style at the weekend with a battling 20-17 victory at BT Murrayfield.

And it was a win predicated on a perfect gameplan by the coaching staff, brilliantly executed by the players, to get Scotland dreaming of a first Championship title since 1999.

England may have controlled possession and territory but a fierce home defence and a clinical edge in attack that saw them pick their moments to perfection meant no-one could deny they full deserved victory.

Here’s how Gregor Townsend’s men managed to make Calcutta Cup history.


Any analysis of how Scotland managed to leave BT Murrayfield with a Round 1 victory has to start with their defence.

England enjoyed 54% of the possession and 62% of the territory, they carried for 719 metres to Scotland’s 456, yet lost by three points.

That was largely down a specific, and in some ways unique, defensive gameplan installed by head coach Townsend and defence coach Steve Tandy.

READ: Gregor Townsend relieved after Scotland secure Calcutta Cup victory

There has been a shift in Test rugby over the past few years, prioritising the ‘dominant tackle’ – essentially trying to win the collision as a defender.

It’s a risk-reward tactic in that the chances of forcing a turnover, or at least putting the attacking team behind the gainline, are increased but you leave yourself exposed if it doesn’t work.

Scotland opted to completely eschew this tactic, going for just a single dominant tackle across the entire 80 minutes and instead focussed on wrapping up, bringing the man to the ground, holding their line and trusting their discipline to completely repel England.

Tandy’s tactic worked a treat as Scotland made a mammoth 124 tackles, 31 more than England, and missed just a miniscule six. By contrast, Eddie Jones’s troops, more inclined to try for a game-changing dominant tackle, missed 17.

No player epitomised the hosts’ defensive mindset better than Hamish Watson, as the 2021 Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship broke the record for most consecutive tackles made in the Championship without missing one by taking his tally up to a remarkable 163.

A look at the speed of ruck ball provides further evidence that this was a deliberate ploy by the home side.

A massive 64.7% of England’s ruck ball was deemed ‘quick’ (where the ball is played in three seconds or less), showing that Scotland had no interest in slowing it down, simply backing themselves to stop England’s ball carriers, even off quick ball.

England tried plenty of different tactics to penetrate the Scottish defensive wall – from kicking in behind to bringing winger Joe Marchant into his more familiar outside centre channel as a strike runner – but the hosts held firm and picked up where they left off in the 2021 Guinness Six Nations, when they were the Championship’s best defensive team.

READ: Stuart Hogg says Calcutta Cup win was a full squad effort

Steve Tandy – take a bow.


While defensive excellence is undoubtedly vital to success, to win a game of rugby you have to score more points than the opposition – as Jones was at pains to point out in his post-match press conference.

Scotland’s attacking gameplan relied on picking their moments to strike and, with Finn Russell demonstrating his increasing maturity as a game-managing fly-half, they again executed it perfectly.

Firstly, although they had far less possession and territory than England as discussed above, they were ripping holes in their opponent’s defence at a remarkable rate.

They made 17 tackles breaks on just 74 carries – one every 4.3 carries – whereas the Red Rose broke just six tackles on 92 carries at a rate of one every 15.33 carries.

Even compared to other Guinness Six Nations sides in Round 1, they stack up impressively, as Wales broke a tackle on every 8.9 carries, with Ireland needing 6.38 carries per tackle break.

The first half was largely spent repelling England attacks, which they did admirably, but when Scotland did finally get ball in hand, they took full advantage.

Ben White’s crucial 17th-minute try is the perfect example and shows the brilliance of Townsend’s preparation, as well as the quick thinking of the players on the field.

Ben Youngs’ box kick goes out of play near halfway and Scotland race to execute a quickly-taken lineout. Hooker George Turner uses a different ball from the one that originally went into touch but Maro Itoje and Ellis Genge had chased Youngs’ kick and are close enough to ensure a lineout is officially formed.

A quickly-taken lineout was a call-back to Townsend’s early tenure, when Scotland regularly used this tactic, and their speed meant that England weren’t set defensively.

READ: Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match Fagerson reflects on “harum-scarum” Calcutta Cup triumph

Off first-phase ball, Sam Johnson carried hard into contact and White opts to go back to the blindside with second-phase ball.

Russell is used as bait, looping round to the openside and dragging defenders with him, while Stuart Hogg steps into the line from full-back as first receiver down the blindside.

England’s defence isn’t lined up in the optimal formation. Their short-side defenders are Itoje, Nick Isiekwe, Kyle Sinckler and Youngs – all fine international players but facing two locks, a prop and a scrum-half with a slew of backs is a mismatch that Scotland exploit.

Itoje almost saves the situation with a brilliant reading of the game, blitzing out of the line and getting to Hogg at first receiver but can’t prevent the Scotland captain getting his hands free and popping the ball to Darcy Graham, with Isiekwe also having been drawn towards Hogg.

Graham bursts through the gaping hole left by Isiekwe, suddenly finds himself in England’s backfield and then uses his dancing feet to turn Marchant inside out. White is on his shoulder and it’s a simple task to send the scrum-half in for a try just five minutes into his international debut.

Scotland picked their moment and exploited a mismatch with a brilliant strike play. Tellingly, the five seconds before White dotted down were the only five seconds Scotland spent in England’s 22 in the whole first half, yet they led 10-6 at the break.

The definition of taking your chance when it comes.


Their targeted defence and opportunistic attack ensured Scotland held an interval lead but all great coaches, in any sport, earn their crust with their half-time adjustments.

England boss Jones was no different in Round 1 as he clocked that his first-half gameplan predicated on kicking the ball in behind Scotland to try and take advantage of the wet, slippery conditions and exploit a perceived opposition weakness hadn’t worked.

The visitors’ attacking strategy changed as they opted to keep ball in hand more regularly after the break and the dividends were immediate, as they won five early penalties to heap the pressure on the hosts.

READ: Tom Curry concedes that England need to “reflect and be better”.

Marcus Smith slotted one from the tee to narrow the deficit and the No.10 then went over for a brilliant 52nd-minute try before adding another three-pointer ten minutes later to put England in control at 17-10 ahead.

Scotland were on the ropes and in crucial moments, you need your stars to step up. Cometh the hour, cometh Finn Russell.

Russell has been one of the most exciting No.10s in world rugby for a few years, with his dynamic, unstructured play getting fans on their feet and creating moments of magic out of nothing.

Yet, slightly under the radar, over the past 12 months he has been evolving his game to become more comfortable sticking within a system and managing a game from the fly-half channel.

He can still break a game open with a moment of individual brilliance but his rugby intelligence is such that he can also wear teams down with expert decision-making and a building of pressure.

His kicking, or perhaps more pertinently the moments that he chose to kick, were sublime throughout the Calcutta Cup and led to the game-winning passages of play.

With 65 minutes played and Scotland in danger of slipping out of the game, Russell produced a brilliant, flat cross-field kick to Duhan van der Merwe that opened England up.

Not settling there, he then came up with an even longer cross-kick shortly after – spotting Marchant out of position and noticing a one-on-one match-up between winger Graham and England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie on the opposite flank.

Put in a situation well out of his comfort zone, Cowan-Dickie deliberately slapped the jump ball forward out of play, earning himself ten minutes in the sin-bin and handing Scotland a penalty try that levelled the game at 17-17.

Fourteen-man England were shell-shocked and Russell kept his foot on the accelerator, manoeuvring his side into position to win a penalty shortly after, which he converted for a 20-17 advantage that they never surrendered.

England still had one glorious chance to avoid defeat late on but again, Scotland picked their moment and capitalised when it mattered.

There was only one lineout steal for either side throughout the 80 minutes and it came with less than five minutes remaining, as Sam Skinner pilfered England’s attacking lineout just when they looked set to earn a game-tying, or perhaps even game-winning score.

It was a fitting way to secure victory – a combination of great defence and opportunism, the exact blend that enabled Scotland to make Calcutta Cup history at BT Murrayfield.