It had seemed a formality that Martin Johnson’s men would roll Scotland aside to set them up for what should be a titanic tussle against Ireland, but instead they produced a shoddy, careless display that almost allowed the Calcutta Cup to go the same way as their Grand Slam hopes.
Their youngsters, so vibrant and exciting in the opening three rounds of the tournament, were silenced to some extent here. Ben Youngs was well shackled, Tom Wood quiet, and Chris Ashton denied space.
Yet still England won. Their mantra in this tournament has been simply to find a way, and thanks to Tom Croft’s second-half try, they did so once again against opponents who can be satisfied with their performance despite making it four defeats from four and the looming prospect of the wooden spoon.
But Johnson was far from impressed:. “We highlighted where the dangers were and did not do a good enough job,” he said. “We got better in the second-half, but our mistakes kept them in the game. We can’t have that next week, we have got to be smarter.
“We have not won in Dublin for a while, so it will be a great game for us. We have earned it.
“And we have won four on the trot so everyone in the Championship would love to be where we are now.”
And Johnson admits Ireland will prove a stern test after their controversial defeat to Wales.
He added: “Ireland will be smarting after Cardiff and what happened there. They are a proud team and it is a cracking game for us to go and play. I would have thought they wouldn’t need any more motivation (than to deny England the Grand Slam). At the start of the tournament I think they were always happy to be under the radar.
“They had a tough game in Italy, got written off, and when they lost to France I thought they would really fancy themselves to win their last three. That is not to be but every game is huge. It (the Grand Slam) adds to it certainly, but it would be a massive game anyway.”
And Johnson knows a thing or two about winning Grand Slams in Dublin, having captained the side that won 42-6 at Lansdowne Road eight years ago.
That side was very special, though, and were in full World Cup mode. This current incarnation could well become a top-class side but they are not there yet. What Johnson would have given for a centre of Brian O’Driscoll’s enduring class, for example, as he watched Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall attempt to bulldoze their way across the gain-line without success.
Their job would have been made far easier with quick ball, though, but Scotland successfully disrupted the breakdown, although their failure to make incisive progress once they had possession left Andy Robinson screaming in frustration.
They did enough, though, to stay in touch. When Ruaridh Jackson sent a drop goal spiralling through the posts to make it 9-9 at half-time, there was a genuine air of concern sweeping around Twickenham. Toby Flood and Chris Paterson has swapped penalties before that, but the decisive moment stubbornly refused to come.
It seemed certain to do so when Ben Foden was sent clear by Ashton after a break by the outstanding James Haskell, but the full-back was denied by a superb covering tackle by Paterson. Yet with John Barclay in the sin-bin for interfering at a ruck — a controversial call by Romain Poite – the crucial try did arrive when substitute Croft was given space to run to the line by a Mark Cueto pass that could have been slightly forward.
Scotland hit back when Max Evans collected his own chip ahead to bring the deficit back to three before Jonny Wilkinson came on in his now customary role of ‘closer’ to slot a penalty and ensure England will head to Dublin with the Grand Slam at stake.
Scorers for England scorers: Tries: Croft. Cons: Wilkinson. Pens: Flood 4, Wilkinson.
Scorers for Scotland: Tries: Evans. Cons: Paterson. Pens: Paterson 2. Drop Goals: Jackson.
ENGLAND: Foden, Ashton, Tindall, Hape, Cueto, Flood, Youngs, Corbisiero, Hartley, Cole, Deacon, Palmer, Wood, Haskell, Easter.
Replacements: Banahan for Tindall (41), Wilkinson for Flood (66), Care for Youngs (55), Thompson for Hartley (66), Doran-Jones for Cole (75), Shaw for Deacon (66), Croft for Wood (66).
SCOTLAND: Paterson, Danielli, Ansbro, S. Lamont, Evans, Jackson, R. Lawson, Jacobsen, Ford, Low, Gray, Kellock, Hines, Barclay, Brown.
Replacements: Parks for Jackson (55), Blair for R. Lawson (55), S. Lawson for Ford (66), Cross for Low (53), Strokosch for Hines (68), Vernon for Brown (43).
Referee: Romain Poite (France).