STUART BATHGATE @ The Aviva Stadium
THIS WAS a match of missed opportunities for one side and clinical chance-taking by the other, and for much of the contest there did not seem to be anything like a 20-point margin between the teams. In that sense, and despite the similarity of the scoreline, this was not another Cardiff-type away performance from Scotland.
On the other hand, for all that the visitors might easily have scored an extra try or two but for minor inaccuracies, it would be a mistake to imply that there was little or nothing in the match. Ireland fully merited their win, and now go on to have a tilt at the Grand Slam when they meet England next week. They are a more mature team than Scotland, as Gregor Townsend acknowledged after the game, and even if they had conceded a couple more scores they have the ability to dig out a win in any number of ways.
From a Scotland point of view, however, what was frustrating was the fact they were unable to force Ireland to display that versatility by putting them under pressure. It was doubly frustrating, too, that it was some of the team’s most dependable performers, such as Huw Jones and Peter Horne, who were responsible for failing to provide a scoring pass – as Jones did with Stuart Hogg – or inadvertently laying one on for Ireland, as Horne did for Jacob Stockdale’s first try.
And even if you do see this as one that got away, the fact remains that Scotland are still seeking that elusive big away win.
If they beat Italy in Rome to add to their home victories over France and England, they will have had a successful Six Nations season by their own recent standards. But that next step in the evolution of this team still tantalisingly awaits somewhere in the future.
A good start
The game began well enough for Scotland, with Greig Laidlaw opening the scoring with a 12th-minute penalty on his team’s first real foray into the home 22. The score unsettled Ireland, or at least winger Keith Earls, who made two mistakes in quick succession. The latter, an overthrown pass, allowed Scotland to go back on the attack, but it ended when Ireland were awarded a penalty.
Ryan Wilson, injured just before that award, went off and was replaced by David Denton. It was the first adverse event of the day for Scotland, but another far bigger one followed in the 22nd minute when Horne’s long pass to the right wing was picked off by Stockdale, who ran in unopposed from halfway. Sexton converted from in front of the posts, and, after a period in which they had begun to look rattled, Ireland visibly grew in confidence.
…and yet so far
Not that Scotland retreated into their shell. Their idea was to keep on performing the unexpected, and Finn Russell did exactly that five minutes later by throwing a long pass that sparked a counter-attack which should have led to a try. Huw Jones did all the difficult work with a break from deep, and appeared to have done everything right when, with Hogg to his right, he drew the last man then passed. That pass, however, was just too low for the full-back, and Ireland were able to regain possession.
Lee Jones replaced Blair Kinghorn for a while towards the interval when the winger went off for a head-injury assessment, and Scotland went back on the attack. In the final play of the half, however, they fell further behind, as Stockdale grabbed his second try of the game.
The initial damage was created by a break from Rob Kearney which was taken on by Conor Murray then halted just shy of the line. From the resultant scrum, Bundee Aki and Ringrose performed a neat loop, with Rory Best a decoy runner. Stockdale still had some work to do out wide, but with a bit of space he was able to jink inside and touch down his 10th try in eight internationals. Sexton’s conversion was the last kick of the half, putting Ireland firmly in control of the game.
Second half woes
Scotland needed to score first in the second half to have a hope of getting back in contention, but they had hardly got out of their own half when Murray put Ireland further ahead. A lineout on the left was driven forward, with Peter O’Mahony and Dan Leavy in charge at the back of the maul. They were joined by Best, and together they steered the attack into an angle from which the scrum-half had a clear run for the line. Hamish Watson got to grips with Murray, but Aki was in support to help the half-back finish the job.
Kinghorn shines a light but Sexton wins the day
Sexton’s conversion took Ireland’s lead to an apparently insurmountable 18-point lead, but Scotland swiftly hit back through Kinghorn. Hogg had just failed to connect with his winger a minute earlier in a play that was brought back for offside, but at the second time of asking Kinghorn was able to get his hands on the end of a quick passing move and leap over the line to score in the corner. Laidlaw hit the crossbar with the conversion attempt.
A new Scottish front row was in place by the time the match entered its final quarter, but they could do little to turn the tide as Ireland went in search of the bonus point. Sexton missed a long-range penalty with 15 minutes to play, then when an easier chance presented itself decided to go for touch. It was a wise choice, as substitute hooker Sean Cronin threw in, got on the back of the maul, then dived over for try No 4. Sexton was on target to make it four tries and four conversions, and although Scotland came very close to a second try of their own very late in the game, there was no doubting who were the deserving winners.
Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, T Furlong, J Ryan, D Toner, P O’Mahony, D Leavy, C Stander. Substitutes: S Cronin, J McGrath, A Porter, I Henderson, J Murphy, K Marmion, J Carbery, J Larmour.
Scotland: S Hogg; B Kinghorn, H Jones, P Horne, S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw; G Reid, S McInally, S Berghan, G Gilchrist, J Gray, J Barclay, H Watson, R Wilson. Substitutes: F Brown, J Bhatti, W Nel, T Swinson, D Denton, A Price, N Grigg, L Jones.
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Stockdale 2, Murray, Cronin. Cons: Sexton 4.
Scotland: Try: Kinghorn. Pen: Laidlaw.
Scoring sequence: 0-3, 5-3, 7-3, 12-3, 14-3 half-time, 19-3, 21-3, 21-8, 26-8, 28-8.
Referee: W Barnes (England).