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6N: England denies Scotland rugby’s greatest ever comeback

March 16, 2019
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Sarpsborg forward Anwar Elyounossi, let, and Scotland's Darcy Graham react in dejection after England scored a try during the Six Nations rugby union international between England and Scotland at Twickenham stadium in London, Saturday, March 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)

LONDON (AP) — From 31-0 behind after 31 minutes to 38-31 ahead in time added on, Scotland’s players just had to repel one more English attack to complete the greatest comeback in the history of international rugby.

One of the wildest games ever played still had one final twist, though.

In what proved to be the last passage of play in an extraordinary Six Nations match on Saturday, England replacement George Ford darted through a gap in Scotland’s tiring defensive line to dot down between the posts before adding the conversion.

The final score of 38-38 was the highest-scoring draw ever between two tier-one nations. And no one at Twickenham — fans, coaches, players — knew quite what to make of it.

“It’s a unique game,” Scotland coach Gregor Townsend said, looking completely bemused.

His England counterpart, Eddie Jones, said his players might need to get in the “right people” to address what he described a “100 percent mental” issue.

“We got seduced by the scoreboard,” Jones added in an attempt to explain how England, which had clinched an attacking bonus for four tries as early as the 29th minute, capitulated in almost record-breaking style.

No team had previously come back from more than 24 points down to win a tier-one game.

In the end, England had to settle for a second-place finish in the Six Nations — Wales had wrapped up the title and the Grand Slam earlier by beating Ireland 25-7 — and preserving its unbeaten home streak against Scotland dating back to 1983.

As for the Scots, they return north with the Calcutta Cup retained for the first time since 1984. They avoided a fourth straight loss in what has been a disappointing tournament for a team that started out as genuine contenders for the title.

There was, however, a tinge of regret.

“With a minute and a half to go, you dare to dream,” Scotland captain Stuart McInally said.

Knowing the title was out of reach after events in Cardiff, England seemed intent on having a party nonetheless in the closing game of the Six Nations.

Winger Jack Nowell powered over for a try after 66 seconds, and more arrived through flanker Tom Curry, lock Joe Launchbury and winger Jonny May. There were “ooohs” and “aaahs” from the home fans. Mixing power with flicks and offloads, England’s players were overwhelming their opponents in international rugby’s oldest rivalry and having fun doing it.

The 40-point winning margin from the teams’ last meeting at Twickenham, which England won 61-21 in 2017, looked in danger.

“Our first half, there was some exceptional rugby,” Jones said. “We should’ve been ahead by a lot more.”

The turnaround for Scotland began with a try that felt at the time like a consolation.

McInally charged down Owen Farrell’s crossfield kick near halfway, collected the ball, and managed to sprint all the way to the line — shrugging off May along the way.

That was in the 35th minute and it was still looking like a damage-limitation exercise for the Scots at halftime.

Yet they came out after the break with completely different body language and mindset. England started making mistakes, perhaps not knowing whether to defend the lead or keep attacking, and the momentum switched.

Scotland scored four tries in 13 minutes, with winger Darcy Graham showing dancing feet to cross in both corners, No. 8 Magnus Bradbury racing clear from 30 meters out, and Finn Russell intercepting Farrell’s wayward pass on halfway and sprinting over unchallenged.

England was simply shell-shocked. Farrell, the captain and most important back, was somewhat fortunate to escape a sin-binning for a no-arms tackle on Graham and was soon replaced by Ford.

Still, Scotland came forward and when center Sam Johnson was sent through by Russell on halfway and barged over the line, the visitors led for the first time and the greatest rugby comeback was on.

Ford, though, ensured England avoided that embarrassment.

“I thought our finishers did exceptionally well to get us out of jail at the end,” Jones said.

“It’s a lesson. And the hardest lessons are the best lessons. And you want these sorts of lessons before you go to the World Cup.”

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80