Ashton try fires England into last eight
England needed a late try from winger Chris Ashton to overcome a fired-up Scotland 16-12 and creep into the quarterfinals of the World Cup as Pool B winners on Saturday.
The 2003 champions, who just needed to avoid defeat by seven or more points to progress, looked like losing before Ashton crossed two minutes from time to give them a perfect four wins out of four matches.
They now face another familiar foe in France in a quarterfinal clash back at Eden Park next Saturday after the French earlier reached the last eight in even more ignominious fashion with a loss to Tonga in Wellington.
"It was incredibly difficult and full credit to Scotland, they played a fantastic match," England captain Lewis Moody said in a pitchside interview.
"We didn't make it easy on ourselves with the penalty count, but Scotland made it incredibly difficult for us and we came out on the right side in the end."
Scotland, whose last-gasp defeat to Argentina last weekend left them with an uphill battle against their oldest rugby rivals, gave everything they had but are now almost certain to exit the World Cup before the knockout stage for a first time.
Two Chris Paterson penalties and a penalty and drop goal from Dan Parks helped keep the Scots in front for most of the evening, but ultimately they will rue their inability to take the few try-scoring chances they carved out.
England showed almost nothing in attack until Ashton's late score and relied heavily on the kicking of Jonny Wilkinson, who had another disappointing night with the boot but still kept his team in the match with two penalties and a drop goal.
This video is not available in your region
"We knew Scotland would come out with all their fire, but in the second half we countered it and it was a fantastic performance by our boys," Moody added.
"We came out on top in a few of the scrums in the second half."
Things had looked bad for Scotland's avowed intent of running England ragged when rain showers poured down on the pitch all day and then again when they lost flyhalf Ruaridh Jackson to injury after just five minutes.
But fullback Paterson got them on the scoreboard with a penalty after the ill-discipline that has dogged England throughout the tournament surfaced once again in the ninth minute.
Replacement standoff Parks added another eight minutes later, although it took the television official to confirm it had crept over the crossbar, and the Scots had the sniff of a famous upset.
England continued to kick possession away to try and keep the Scots in their own half but when their pressure led to three penalties in five minutes, Wilkinson missed them all.
Wilkinson finally got England off the mark seven minutes from halftime but the Scots charged straight back and Parks gave them a 9-3 lead with a drop goal before trotting straight off the pitch for the break.
England got some momentum going at the start of the second half with impressive winger Delon Armitage coming close to scoring down the left wing soon after the restart.
Scotland should have scored their first try after 53 minutes but Nick de Luca dropped the ball with the line at his mercy after Simon Danielli's chip and chase had stretched the England defence to its limits.
Paterson added his second penalty soon afterwards to extend the Scottish lead to 12-3 and that seemed to focus English minds with Wilkinson replying within a minute with a trademark drop goal.
The 32-year-old brought the English even closer with a 63rd minute penalty but the Scots continued to attack at every opportunity and lock Richie Gray almost latched on to a Parks crosskick a minute later.
Wilkinson missed another penalty 13 minutes from time and it appeared England would advance with a bonus point defeat until their pack found an extra burst of energy and surged towards the Scottish line.
The ball was finally released and replacement Toby Flood's long miss pass gave Ashton time to size up the single defender and crash over to score and save England's blushes.
"Once again we slipped at the crucial times. We are going home now, maybe we will feel better in a couple of weeks, but now I am gutted," Scotland captain Alastair Kellock said.
"We were in a difficult group but we had the opportunities to win last week's game (against Argentina) and the same this week, but we didn't take them. But good luck to England."
England - Try: Chris Ashton. Conversion: Toby Flood. Penalties: Jonny Wilkinson (2). Drop Goal: Wilkinson.
Scotland - Penalties: Christopher Paterson (2), Dan Parks. Drop Goal: Parks.