THEY arrived in Dublin with high hopes of securing an unprecedented third consecutive win in the Six Nations after a towering performance at home against France in their last outing, but in among all the back-slapping of last week we seemed to forget that the beaten team had been not very fit, not very organised and, on the whole, not very good.
Ireland at home was always going to be an entirely different proposition, and unlike the last time the boys in blue won in Dublin, there was little chance of the hosts underestimating the threat posed by their opponents on this occasion.
The Scots battled to the end in an increasingly bad-tempered contest and deserve full credit for that, and Stuart Hogg provided the one real moment of magic midway through the first half, but the truth is that Ireland controlled this match from start to finish. This was a timely reminder that this Scotland team is still very much a work in progress.
Scotland made great profit out of pressurising the breakdown last week, by expertly tip-toeing along the line just short of provoking referee Glen Jackson, but French whistler Pascal Gauzere was calling it slightly differently this time and the Scots were slow to adapt – which proved costly during the first half.
It allowed Sexton to kick three penalties and, worse still, the Irish scored two tries while Barclay was spending ten minutes on the side lines for illegally slowing the ball down.
“We talked about needing discipline to stay in the game especially in the first half when we fell on the wrong side of a couple of refereeing decisions. You know, you get some and you don’t get some,” said Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw, who seemed pretty bemused when disussing his team’s difficulties at ruck time with Gauzere during the match
“I don’t know if it was a slow start, we just couldn’t get our hands on the ball. When you are defending for long periods it’s hard to feel that you are in the game, so we just had to hang in there and ride the storm. We did that at times but then we let them away with a couple of tries and once you let Ireland away they are a tough tam to claw back,” he added.
“It’s not all negative. We came here and scored 25 points so if we can sort our defence out then we’ll be in Test matches. When we held on to the ball in the middle part of the game we felt as if caused Ireland lots of problems – we were going from our 22 right up to theirs with the ball in hand. But then we let them off the hook a little bit with a couple of kicks going out on the full. It’s those little inaccuracies that are the difference between winning and losing.”
There was nothing inaccurate about Hogg’s major contribution to this match. When Connor Murray box-kicked right down the full-back’s throat, he immediately sensed an opportunity too good to miss. With tight-head prop Mike Ross and hooker Rory Best trundling up the middle of the park, Hogg turned on the after-burners and blazed through the gap between the hapless front-rowers. From there it was a straight footrace to the whitewash – and there was nobody going to catch the flying Scotsman.
Ireland couldn’t have helped but be impressed but they remained unflustered. Johnny Sexton kicked to the corner and after a series of punishing line-out drives and close range rucks, Barclay carried the can for his team’s repeat infringements.
Ireland continued to pile on the pressure with those two tries – the first from the exceptional CJ Stander, who dived American football style over the top of a close range ruck and into the scoring zones; the second from Keith Earls, who capitalised when Hogg and Seymour got themselves in a right mess trying to clear up Sexton’s chip over the top and ended up colliding with each other, leaving the grateful Irish winger (who was celebrating his 50th cap) to pick up the pieces.
The Scots were lucky to escape the half only eight points behind, thanks to a Laidlaw penalty just before the break.
The half-time stats told their own story. The Irish had apparently enjoyed 81 per cent of possession. They had 97 carries against just 21 from Scotland, made 205 metres to 87 (including Hogg’s try) from the visitors, and had only needed to make 24 tackles while their opponents had made 92. In this context, the fact that Scotland were trailing by eight points – and therefore theoretically still in the contest – at the break might be considered a minor triumph for the visitors.
Ireland grabbed try number three when Murray nipped over from close range after the Scots had struggled to cope with another brutal line-out drive.
To their credit, Scotland rallied and after Duncan Taylor, Stuart McInally, WP Nel and Tim Swinson had sucked Ireland’s defence into the right hand corner, the ball came back to midfield and Duncan Weir was able to send Richie Gray on an unchallenged canter to touch down beneath the posts.
The Scots knew that they would have to keep it fast and loose if they were to scramble this one back, and they had some joy with attacking from deep – but they suffered a crippling set-back when Alex Dunbar was sent to the sin-bin for ten minutes for removing Sexton from the tackle area with a judo throw.
It was a reckless move and deserved a yellow card, but replays of the incident suggest that the Irish stand-off made a meal of it by initially appealing to the referee, before belatedly deciding that he should grab his head in agony then lie on his back twitching his legs.
Ireland immediately piled on further punishment with a try for Devon Toner under the posts, and as frustration boiled over there was a series of grappling bouts, although no puches appeared to be thrown.
Scotland desperately tried to grab some sort of lifeline. Sexton was yellow-carded after he skirted round the side of the ruck, latched onto Gray’s leg like a limpet, and then reacted like somebody had insulted his girlfriend when the giant lock tried to shake him off.
The pressure eventually reaped reward when slick hands put the recently returned Dunbar over in the corner, but when Strauss dollied the restart with three minutes to go, any miniscule chance Scotland still had of snatching success from the jaws of defeat evaporated.
Ireland: Tries: Stander, Earls, Murray, Toner; Cons: Sexton 3; Pens: Sexton 3.
Scotland: Tries: Hogg, Gray, Dunbar; Cons: Laidlaw2; Pens: Laidlaw 2.
Yellow cards –
Scotland: Barclay, Dunbar
Teams:S Hogg; T Seymour, D Taylor, A Dunbar, T Visser (S Lamont 68); D Weir (P Horne 62), G Laidlaw (captain); A Dickinson (R Sutherland 66), R Ford (S McInally 50), W Nel (M Low 67), R Gray, T Swinson (R Harley 62), J Barclay, J Hardie (J Strauss 52), R Wilson
Ireland: S Zebo; D Trimble (F McFadden 78), J Payne, R Henshaw, K Earls; J Sexton, C Murray(E Reddan 78); J McGrath (C Healey 67), R Best (captain, R STtrauss 67), M Ross (N White 62), D Ryan (U Dillane 68), D Toner, C Stander, T O’Donnell (R Ruddock 68), J Heaslip.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)