Murray Kinsella reports from Murrayfield
IRELAND PUT THEMSELVES in a position to earn a comeback victory over Scotland on the opening day of the Six Nations, but will instead leave Edinburgh with their championship hopes severely dented.
Joe Schmidt’s side have a dire first half to blame, as their error count and narrow defence allowed the fired-up Scots to burst into a 21-8 lead at the interval with three excellent tries.
Ireland did improve after the break to claw their way to a 22-21 advantage heading into the final quarter, but the home side found the kind of composure that has so often eluded them in recent years, with superb captain Greig Laidlaw’s two penalties in the closing 10 minutes securing their victory.
An opening-day loss to Scotland leaves Schmidt’s Ireland in a poor position to go on and win this Six Nations, with trips to Italy and Wales, as well as home ties against France and England to come.
They did secure the first-ever losing bonus point in this competition, but it is poor consolation.
Ireland simply could not match the aggression, pace and work rate of Scotland in the opening 40 minutes, when the vast majority of the damage was done. Vern Cotter’s side totally backed up their confident and direct pre-match talk with an excellent display.
Brilliant fullback Stuart Hogg scored two tries as Scotland exposed Ireland’s defence in the wide channels – Andy Farrell was serious work to do – while centre Alex Dunbar notched their third with an intelligent lineout move.
A first-half try from Keith Earls, as well as two from Ulstermen Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson in the second half had given Ireland a shot, but the truth is that they did not deserve to win.
After the brilliance of their November Test series, this defeat in Scotland brings Schmidt and his team crashing down to earth and very much on the back foot in this championship.
Ireland’s scrum made a dominant start with Tadhg Furlong winning two early penalties against Allan Dell, but the Scots were in front with less than 10 minutes played.
Effective build-up phases brought them to within a couple of metres and after the direct approach with pick and jams failed, Laidlaw flashed the ball right to Finn Russell, who threw a long pass that looked like it might be picked off by Garry Ringrose for a second.
But the ball flew beyond the Ireland 13, bounced up off the turf and into Hogg’s gleefully waiting hands for a ninth-minute try, converted by Laidlaw.
Ireland had a chance to strike back when they found themselves five metres out from the Scotland tryline with a lineout, but after the home side collapsed the first maul, referee Romain Poite penalised the Irish pack for obstruction in front of the ball carrier second time around.
Poite warned the Scottish front row after a third penalty at scrum time, but then Richie Gray wonderfully picked off Devin Toner at another close-range Ireland lineout. Wasted opportunities.
Two minutes after Toner was robbed, Hogg had his second try. Cotter’s men struck in midfield off a lineout, then flashed the ball wide on second phase to take advantage of the narrow Irish defence.
Hogg burned past Earls down the lefthand five-metre channel, selling fullback Rob Kearney with a dummy and scorching home. Laidlaw again converted for a 14-0 lead with barely a quarter gone.
Finally, Ireland awoke as a big Robbie Henshaw carry and Jackson half-break were followed up by thunderous CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip carries, before Ireland moved the ball wide left with advantage being played.
Simon Zebo’s long pass was almost picked off by Tommy Seymour but instead ricocheted up into Earls’ hands and he dotted down in the left corner, confirmed by the TMO.
But Ireland fell back asleep and conceded a third first-half try – stemming from a mix-up between Conor Murray and Kearney which resulted in the fullback knocking on. A clever Russell grubber forced Zebo to carry the ball into touch and earned the Scots a five-metre lineout.
Inside centre Alex Dunbar joined the lineout, completely catching Ireland unaware. Replacement hooker Ross Ford simply threw straight to the unlifted Dunbar towards the front of the lineout and he burst past Rory Best, Murray and Zebo to finish a clever move.
Laidlaw converted superbly again, although Jackson drew Ireland back to 21-8 with a penalty when the Scots were caught offside.
Schmidt’s men could have had a second try before the break, but Zebo couldn’t burst clear when he intercepted inside the Ireland 22, with Scotland doing well to get back and gather his kick ahead, then firing the ball into touch for the relief of the half-time whistle.
A missed lineout meant a poor start to the second half, but a muscular Sean O’Brien turnover penalty at the breakdown got Ireland motoring.
Their first attack in the 22 brought a penalty against Tommy Seymour for rolling into Murray after his tackle, with Ireland opting for a close-range scrum.
Henshaw hammered at the Scots on first phase to get the bruising multi-phase passage rolling, with a clever O’Brien offload in amongst the one-out carries. Murray sniped and nearly scored, but it was Henderson who forced his way over eventually, Jackson converting for 21-15.
Ringrose produced some fine defensive reads and then Henshaw forced a turnover in the tackle as Ireland’s defence finally made a statement, with Schmidt’s men attacking from deep in their own half after that Scottish knock-on. O’Brien broke on a dummy loop, but replacement back row John Barclay earned a turnover penalty to halt that attack.
Ireland were buoyed, however, and now grabbed the momentum. Murray blocked a Russell grubber attempt and gathered himself, passing to Heaslip, but the number eight’s offload effort to the slipping Henshaw with the tryline in sight was intercepted by Maitland.
The Scotland right wing denied Ireland again moments later, after Kearney beat the tackle of Hogg down the right and offloaded inside to Earls to score. The TMO review showed that Maitland had managed to drag Kearney’s foot into touch before he got the ball away.
But there was no stopping the Irish resurgence now, as a good Ringrose carry laid the platform in Scotland’s 22 and then Murray picked out Jackson running a clever line flat against the grain, the out-half bursting through and stretching out to score a try he converted himself.
Those two points brought Ireland into the lead for the first time at 22-21. Schmidt’s men had chances soon after to put the game away. Their errors were deeply damaging.
First, a knock-on in the Scotland 22, then Kearney passed forward and into touch with Zebo in space on the left, before the Scots forced another breakdown penalty on Ireland’s next promising attack.
From that penalty, they went back into the Ireland half and battered at the visitors until Jackson failed to roll away and Laidlaw punished him from the tee, taking Scotland back in front at 24-22.
The captain maintained his 100% record with the last play of the game, his penalty rubbing salt into the Irish wounds and wrapping up a deserved win for Scotland.
Tries: Keith Earls, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson
Conversions: Paddy Jackson [2 from 3]
Penalties: Paddy Jackson [1 from 1]
Tries: Stuart Hogg , Alex Dunbar
Conversions: Greig Laidlaw [3 from 3]
Penalties: Greig Laidlaw [2 from 2]
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg; Sean Maitland, Huw Jones (Mark Bennett ’63), Alex Dunbar, Tommy Seymour; Finn Russell (Duncan Weir ’46 to ’52), Greig Laidlaw (captain); Allan Dell (Gordon Reid ’56), Fraser Brown (Ross Ford ’5 to ’10, permanent 26′), Zander Fagerson; Richie Gray, Jonny Gray; Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson (John Barclay ’49), Josh Strauss (Tim Swinson ’66).
Replacements not used: Simon Berghan, Ali Price.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls (Tommy Bowe ’68), Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath (Cian Healy ’56), Rory Best (captain), Tadhg Furlong (John Ryan ’69); Iain Henderson (Ultan Dillane ’64), Devin Toner; CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien (Josh van der Flier ’66), Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements not used: Niall Scannell, Kieran Marmion, Ian Keatley.
Referee: Romain Poite [FFR].