DAVID BARNES @ Murrayfield
A WINNING start to a Six Nations campaign for the first time in eleven years and surely not even the most one-eyed Irishman could argue that the home team’s success was anything other than richly deserved. The Scots fired out the blocks with three well taken tries and then weathered a ferocious second half rally before eventually edging it through the awesome power of unbreakable self-belief.
The Scottish scrum really struggled, as widely anticipated, and when the home-pack gave up three set-piece penalties in the first 20 minutes you feared that this could sink their challenge before it had really begun – but the whole team’s pace and purpose in every other facet meant that their scrummaging woes became little more than a side story in the overall narrative of a famous Murrayfield victory.
The boys in blue took the lead in the eighth minute when they worked their way to a few feet from the Irish line, and when keeping it tight didn’t work Russell was ready to sling a long pass towards an overlap on the right. The ball didn’t go to hand but bounced out of the reach of Garry Ringrose, and Stuart Hogg only needed to check his run momentarily to gather before scampering home from ten yards out.
Hogg doubled his account on the 20 minute mark when Josh Strauss hit up in the middle after a great line-out take from Richie Gray, quick possession was manufactured and the ball went left again to the flying Scottish full-back, who sold opposite number Rob Kearney an effortless dummy before motoring home.
Ireland bounced back immediately with a powerful demonstration of forward power bringing a penalty against Hamish Watson for sneaking up the side of a ruck near the home team’s posts in a desperate attempt to stop momentum. Advantage was played with the ball being fired out, past a despairing interception attempt from Tommy Seymour, for Keith Earls to slide over in the left hand corner.
But Scotland didn’t let that knock them off their stride, and they grabbed try number three with less than half an hour played through a wonderful piece of line-out ingenuity. Russell’s cute grubber kick into the corner forced the visitors to surrender a throw-in five yards from their own line. Laidlaw, Seymour and Alex Dunbar all wandered in nonchalantly to line up at the front and the Irish didn’t think to mark them, allowing Ross Ford – on the park as a blood replacement for Fraser Brown – to fire the ball in at six inches above head height for Dunbar to collect and stroll over entirely unchallenged.
Scotland went in hunt of the first bonus point in Six Nations history during the final few minutes of the half, but in that enthusiasm to force home their advantage they almost shot themselves in the foot when Dunbar attempted an offload which wasn’t on and Simon Zebo intercepted. Fortunately for the hosts, the winger was outpaced by Seymour as he tried to chase down his own kick ahead.
Ireland started the second half like a tornado, and when they got a penalty under the shadow of the posts [not rolling away] they were always going to opt for the scrum, having not had a chance to really make that huge area of advantage count since the opening quarter. To their credit, the Scots managed to hold strong this time, but the pressure was unrelenting, and Iain Henderson eventually got the ball down a number of phases later.
The visitors really should have taken the lead when Connor Murray picked out a loose grubber from Russell, but the scrum-half opted not to release Zebo on his left, and then when he did feed the ball inside to Heaslip the number eight was hunted down by Ryan Wilson and gifted his offload from the deck straight into the grateful hands of the covering Sean Maitland.
It was Maitland to the rescue again just a few seconds later when his superb last-gasp tackle forced Kearney into touch before he was able to get the ball away to Earls for a certain try.
But the pressure was building and building, and finally the dam burst when Jackson took a flat ball at a devilish angle to slip between Ford and Dunbar, before stretching out of Strauss’s tackle to dot down over the line. The stand-off converted his own try to give his team a narrow one point lead.
Scotland just couldn’t get a grip of the match. Their first phase possession was being badly disrupted and when they did manage to get their hands on the ball they were trying too hard to conjure that moment of magic which was swing this game back in their favour.
But they were only one point behind. They only needed one little chink of light, and that came when Ireland gave away a penalty deep inside the Scottish half. Russell sent the ball down field for a line-out on the Irish 22, and a few phases later they secured another penalty against some lazy Irish bodies rolling about at the bottom of a ruck, allowing Greig Laidlaw to step forward to recapture the lead.
It was like a shot of adrenalin to the heart for the Scots and they were soon back knocking on the Irish door. They kicked another penalty to the corner, then held the ball tight during phase after phase as the clock ticked slowly towards the 80th minute, and eventually they picked up another penalty. By the time Laidlaw had pointed to the posts there was less than a minute left, and by the time the ball sailed through the posts from just a few feet in from the left touchline we were into extra time.
The gig was up for an Irish side which had landed in Edinburgh fully expecting this to be their first pit-stop on the journey to a Grand Slam showdown against England in six weeks’ time. Such lofty aspirations should still be beyond Scotland, but with this result they have issued notice that they are indeed genuine contenders in this championship.
Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland, H Jones (M Bennett 59), A Dunbar, T Seymour; F Russell (D Weir 45-51), G Laidlaw; A Dell (G Reid 55), F Brown (R Ford 4-9, 26), Z Fagerson, R Gray, J Gray, R Wilson, H Watson (J Barclay 48), J Strauss (T Swinson 65).
Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls (T Bowe 67), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; P Jackson, C Murray; J McGrath (C Healey 56), R Best, T Furlong (J Ryan 68), I Henderson (U Dilate 63), D Toner, C Stander, S O’Brien (J van der Flier 65), J Heaslip.
Scotland: Tries: Hogg 2, Dunbar; Cons: Laidlaw 3; Pens: Laidlaw 2.
Ireland: Tries: Earls, Henderson, Jackson; Cons: Jackson 2; Pen: Jackson.
Scoring Sequence (Scotland First): 5-0; 7-0; 12-0; 14-0; 14-5; 19-5; 21-5; 21-8 (h-t) 21-13; 21-15; 21-20; 21-22; 24-22; 27-22.
Man-of-the-Match: Stuart Hogg was exceptional in attack – but Zander Fagerson put in a titanic shift in the loose, and although the scrum really struggled he kept battling right to the very end. How often are you likely to see a 21-year-old tighthead prop still going full belt after a full 80 minutes in only his fourth international start?
Moment-of-the-Match: Scotland’s third try by Alex Dunbar was a joyful piece of ingenuity – sublime in its simplicity.
Talking Point: Can Scotland continue getting away with having a scrum that really can’t cope with the heavyweights of international rugby?
Image: Craig Watson – www.craigwatson.co.uk