The Roar
The Roar

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England conquered, Irish in their sights and 'the only holes Ireland have are exactly where Scottish swords fit'

26th February, 2024
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26th February, 2024
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Less than one hour past the game, as we trod to the bars, the Calcutta Cup safe back in the arms of glad Scots who had just made the English go home to think again and again and again and again, a young man strode out of a Princes Street shop into our path, scooped each piece of white and red swag that had reluctantly been for sale and tossed it in a heap on his shop floor.

The sudden quiet fury of his pick up was akin to the predatory instincts of the Hammerwing, the Calcutta Cutter; the Afrikaner Android with feelings, Duhan van der Merwe.

I ran into Duhan on Friday night and completed the only tackle of him this week, avoided his agent’s fend by speaking his mother tongue, and asked the (surprisingly lean) athlete if it would be one try or two.

“Ask Finn,” said he and it was clear to me then and when I saw him warm up the next night that he felt a bit starved for the ball.

For a happy lad, Duhan can seem mad. Frustrated, even.

But it is just that he knows he can beat his man: Henry Slade, Ollie Lawrence, and George Furbank took turns waving at him as he ran by, elbows churning, hair bobbing as if to make him look a wee bit faster.

Just give me the ball, his face glares.

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In those times, he seems fully Scottish. Dignified but fiery, veering from sober to a rage in a second, constrained by innate etiquette, but sure of his cause.

Duhan van der Merwe of Scotland celebrates scoring his team's third try with teammate Blair Kinghorn during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between Scotland and England at BT Murrayfield Stadium on February 24, 2024 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Duhan van der Merwe of Scotland celebrates scoring his team’s third try with teammate Blair Kinghorn during the Guinness Six Nations 2024 match between Scotland and England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Every poem and cup and bar north of the border seems to refer to an old battle lost, or the thorns of love.

Seething just below the surface is that true wildness of being at the end of the cold world: the wooly winds of Shetland, Glasgow’s underworld, hard Aberdeen, the rocks of the Old City, the boats that set sail each day from crags in the dots of islands, and the keen feeling that glib London modernity might not have the last word, yet.

The plot twist this time was Scotland could not claim underdog status. All in all, they had the better team, in theory and in practice.

So Scotland’s rugby team had to bear the weight of expectations in this matchup. The metaphysical “ball on the ground which could not be proved” loss to France reminded them nothing is given to you; so they took this match away from the studio replays.

But first (and is there any word pronounced more beautifully than ‘first’ in Scotland; just try it now: ‘fearrrst’ as if you are spitting glory) England had a moment.

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The way of saying ‘first’ in Scotland is a shy combination of ‘thirsty’ and a violent ‘fist.’

But of all crowds I’ve been in, both this one and my prior visit in 2018 as a Springbok supporter, a Murrayfield stadium is more polite, more reasoned, than any other. My neighbour apologised for every time she exalted in an English error. She made many apologies.

Part of the intellectual vibe flows from the moderately big screen, which poses and answers a question for each whistle.

“Reason for scrum?”

The answer: “unsuccessful maul.”

The result is a lack of outrage; a mass murmur and collective nod.

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A hard heart would be needed to ignore Jamie George’s grief. His team roared into action even from before the whistle blew.

The teams contesting the Cup prepared as distinctly as I found Kings Cross station in London from Edinburgh Waverley.

Every single place which can have an instruction, has one at Kings Cross, space logical, arrows clear, numbers huge, clocks aplenty, and structure apparent: there is even a platform 9 and ¾.

Scotland's Duhan van der Merwe celebrates scoring his third try to complete his hat-trick during the Guinness Six Nations match at the Scottish Gas Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh. Picture date: Saturday February 24, 2024. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe celebrates scoring his third try. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

The high waisted yoga youth are Instagram ready, with faux natural makeup and middle parts in cleverly extended hair strictly enforced, and young vested City bucks in very shiny shoes. Thus did Captain George drill his forwards before the Test: set pieces tight, ten box kicks performed to precision, drop goals by George Ford, and no loose parts except a surly, slouching Joe Marler.

Arriving at Waverley after the four hour winding train ride, noting the entire right side of England sodden, hedges moist, car parks and bricken houses wetted, tree limbs dripping, dewy land sitting lubricated in an irrigant slumber, I was immediately confronted by the shamble of a different part of the Union: arrows and signs to nowhere, the cold draught within, a cat wandering undisturbed, Botox undiscovered, dystopian barbers apparently supreme, and the whole scene profoundly charming.

So was the Scottish warmup at Murrayfield: they cleaned rucks, took wild swings, did random pirouettes, mingled into mauls, and there was the lyrical rugby gangster Finn Russell having loose chats with the beseeching van der Merwe.

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Maybe they were discussing whether the winger should make unnecessary contact with the corner flag as he scored, having demonstrated to Ben Earl that even a fast No 8 is still just an eight. Or the way the southeast part of the pitch makes a kick bounce up into his path for a third try, the first hat trick in 129 Calcutta Cups. Or how to time a yellow card to come at the same time as the Man of the Match award, to become part of trivia questions for a century.

All in all, England looked better prepared for the game and so they were: ten quick points, a larcenous lineout, and the stadium turned dour and grumpy. For 20 minutes, Steve Borthwick’s plan was apparent.

But then the ball was dropped and flung away; on the other hand, ruck cleaning maniac Rory Darge refused to engage in auld Scottish “what might have been” captaincy. He and Russell engineered the patient comeback.

Huw Jones discovered passing this season. Rather than “Ask Finn,” Duhan might have asked Huw. Twice he set the flier free.

By halftime, the roar had returned to the high stadium; joining one of the best musical playlists in the sport. A late afternoon start affords the halftime stroller a view of the dramatic sky.

England lacked gamebreakers, whilst fully loaded Scotland just needed good ball.

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The four-point lead grew to nine, as about 64,000 of the 67,000 spectators started to smile and then sing and dance and know.

Even 14 points down, England did not have a clear path to line breaks: it was kick and hope, which worked only once.

The Cup won, the sun gone down, and Edinburgh turned into one large party.

A post-match concert in the fields, fish and chips at the ready, a loose policy around tram ticketing, happy kilts, and the promise of pints: a brilliant aftermath.

A celebration in Edinburgh is simple: start high at a packed haute cuisine place, where our table grew from five to ten which meant I was sitting on a wine rack losing the breakdown to a Shetlander like Sam Underhill did, and end low in the Bottoms, at a bar which seemed like a sauna and ran out of ice. With each glass, the feats were even more epic, like Vikings telling tales in the mead hall.

Choke tackles in bars are not as legal as the nine or ten at the game.

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Add gin long enough to the Aberdeen and Shetland dialects and one is reduced to sign language or Italian.

Each team left with one loss but one is full of joy and already dreaming of bringing their party to Dublin to spoil Irish dominance. Why not?

The only holes Ireland have are exactly where Scottish swords fit.

A veteran gunslinger against a young one; a wing with size and speed against a small one.

And a loose trio which is clever at getting the rub of the green.

Jamie Ritchie and Darge freed Jack Dempsey to ramble; England was small at number eight and slow at seven. Ireland has counters but will need better play from blindside.

Bleary eyed rugby analysis is my favourite kind, but after listening to myths and legends all night from the north proclaimed by beautiful and magical strangers, I left the bar early Sunday asking myself: “And what if I open a wee bar on Shetland called the Thirsty Fist?”

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