DAVID BARNES @ Aviva Stadium
IF Scotland had been offered a seven-point loss on Saturday morning, few with a vested interest in the national team’s fortunes would have turned their noses up, so from that perspective this should be regarded as a triumph of sorts given the backdrop to this match – but it was hard to escape the sense of frustration afterwards that a golden opportunity to pick up a rare win in Dublin had slipped through the collective fingers of Gregor Townsend’s team.
There was much to admire about this performance from a Scottish perspective – not least set-piece and the batting spirit exhibited by the players from the first minute to the last – but in the final analysis, the failure to turn a number possessions on the Irish line into five or seven points, and too many cheap points coughed up at the other end through disciplinary and/or concentration lapses will haunt the team during their debrief.
At least three soft penalties within easy kicking range for Jonny Sexton were conceded, and while defence was generally solid there was a bad lapse which allowed the Irish in for the game’s only try with just under 10 minutes played – meaning that the visitors were always chasing this game. Plenty to build on for next week’s Calcutta Cup clash at Murrayfield, and lots of lessons to learn.
Theories on what Scotland needed to do to exorcise the demons of a torrid few months had raged wildly all week, but one thing everyone was in agreement on was that they needed to start well, and to their credit they did exactly that, dominating possession with two long passages of play during the opening five minutes and taking the lead through an Adam Hastings penalty from in front of the posts after James Ryan was called for going off his feet to compete for the ball on the deck.
The host team also lost debutant No 8 Caelan Doris during those frantic opening exchanges, after he was knocked-out whilst tackling Hastings, which must have been a huge disappointment for the player, but his team-mates won’t have been overly perturbed to see Peter O’Mahony – the man who led the Lions to a Test series draw against the All Blacks in 2017 – trotting off the bench.
The hosts showed their threat when Jordan Larmour made good ground up the right, and they took the lead on nine minutes by working a neat but fairly basic out-the-back move which opened up a yawning gap on the left for Sexton to waltz through unchallenged. It was a well worked score, but Scotland’s new defence coach Steve Tandy will have been furious that so many blue jerseys were snoozing on the wrong side of the ruck.
Hastings narrowed the gap to a point with a well-struck 40-yarder from a scrum penalty, and Scotland spent the next 10 minutes on the front foot until two loose penalties in quick succession – the second against Fraser Brown for blatantly taking out Andrew Conway as he chased a kick ahead – allowed Ireland to activate the pressure release valve.
Still Ireland were not allowed to build any rhythm and they began to lose focus. Sexton was chirping away at the referee, with the Aviva crowd and the guy working the replays on the big screen following suit – they reckoned that Larmour had been taken out of the ball by Scott Cummings, that Sexton had been caught high as he gathered a loose ball, that Nick Haining had tip-tackled Conway and so it went on.
Good on referee Mathieu Raynal for sticking to his guns, and it was Scotland who were awarded the next kickable penalty against Conor Murray for holding on, but Hastings’ long-range effort strayed to the right of the posts.
Ireland scored next instead when Ali Price was penalised for an offside and Sexton slotted the easy three points.
With three minutes left in the half, Sam Johnson anticipated Murray’s pass for an intercept on his own 22, then Hastings and Sean Maitland lent their support in a breakout which went all the way up to the opposition 22. When the home cover eventually snuffed that move out, blue jerseys were there in numbers to retain possession. Hastings did well to first of all take the ball at ankle level and then pick out impressive new boy Haining with a clever kick-pass – but the move fizzled out when Zander Fagerson was penalised for holding on.
The first half could not have gone much better for Scotland, but they were still four points down at the turnaround.
Two ruck penalties – the first against Rory Sutherland almost immediately from kick-off, and the second against Jamie Ritchie for not getting out of the way quickly enough after a tackle right in front of the posts – allowed Ireland to roll into gear at the start of the second half with another Sexton three points.
But Scotland did not allow that to deviate them from the task in hand, and some excellent continuity play on the Irish line finally prised open space on the right for what should have been a nailed-on try for a player of the experience and calibre of Stuart Hogg, but astonishingly – and excruciatingly – the Scotland captain lost control in the act of grounding, despite being under no pressure at all.
Scotland had to make do with another Hastings penalty for an infringement earlier in that move, which was some consolation and put them back to within four points. Sexton cancelled that out when Jamie Ritchie was penalised again for interfering with the ball on the deck after a tackle in front of his own posts, and the see-saw pattern continued when CJ Stander went off his feet and Hastings nailed the points.
As the game moved into the final 10 minutes, it was finely balanced, and the decisive moment came when Johnson deliberately tried to edge Conway off his stride as he chased a kick ahead. The Irish winger didn’t need a second invitation to hit the deck and while Hastings was clearly furious afterwards at Conway’s amateur dramatics, there was no doubt that there had been unnecessary contact.
Scotland piled everything into one final tilt at glory, with Stuart McInally and Hamish Watson leading the charge as play surged towards the Irish line, but the blue jerseys couldn’t make that crucial final six inches, and twice they lost the ball on the deck during a tense last three minutes.
A hellishly frustrating day for Scotland. The big difference between the two teams was that Ireland made their opponents work hard for everything they got, while Scotland are still too generous at crucial moments.Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 27)
Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland, H Jones (C Harris 64), S Johnson (R Hutchinson 72), B Kinghorn; A Hastings, A Price (G Horne 64); R Sutherland (A Dell 64), F Brown (S McInally 45-50, 56), Z Fagerson (W Nel 72), S Cummings, J Gray (B Toolis 64) J Ritchie, H Watson, N Haining (C du Preez 72).
Ireland: J Larmour; A Conway, G Ringrose (R Henshaw 40), B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (R Byrne 72), C Murray (J Cooney, 59); C Healy (D Kilcoyne 49-51, Porter 65), R Herring (R Kelleher 72), T Furlong (C Healey 77), I Henderson (D Toner 66), J Ryan, C Stander, J van der Flier, C Doris (P O’Mahony 4).
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Ireland: Tries: Sexton; Cons: Sexton; Pen: Sexton 4.
Scotland: Pen: Hastings 4.
Scoring sequence (Ireland first): 0-3; 5-3; 7-3; 7-6; 10-6 (h-t) 13-6; 13-9; 16-9; 16-12; 19-12.