Monday 24 April 2017

Scots lose the plot to allow Ireland a sweet finish

Ireland 35 Scotland 25

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It was hard not to keep thinking that the real business of this Six Nations was kicking off a couple of hours later than this battle for mid-table in the Aviva. And in an atmosphere well removed from the almost casual day out that we had here. A perfect evening for rugby, but not much of the stress you need to make a Test match.

Well, there wasn't until the last quarter when the Scots, heading for their 13th defeat in the last 15 episodes of this Championship fixture, seemed to lose the plot, starting with the concession of a try to Devin Toner which put the home team 35-20 ahead with 11 minutes to go.

It wasn't anybody's plan - at least we hope not - that referee Pascal Gauzerre should be the focus of most attention, but that's how it panned out from start to finish, by which point he was trying to defuse skirmishes all over the shop. Certainly Scotland captain Greig Laidlaw got to talk to him more then he would have wished. They were mostly one-way conversations.

There was plenty to keep us entertained, but for the away side it was mostly an exercise in frustration. The first half hour was a nightmare for them on the penalty count - 8-1 in Ireland's favour at that point - and the last half hour was one where they chased the game hard, initially looking like they could outflank a tiring home team, only to leave empty-handed. Again.

Four tries for Ireland is a good stat on any day. That three of the four came from grunt-fests close to the line made it less easy on the eye than you would have wished. The fourth, for Keith Earls on his 50th cap, had a wedge of good fortune about it with two Scotland players colliding trying to gather a Johnny Sexton chip, leaving the Ireland wing delighted to pick up the pieces.

Earls had a good game in a backline where Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton were in good form, and centres Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne were outstanding. Jamie Heaslip too was very good, and picked up the man of the match award.

Scotland's Stuart McInally tackled by Ireland's Simon Zebo. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Scotland's Stuart McInally tackled by Ireland's Simon Zebo. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ireland's CJ Stander holds onto the ball tightly. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Action Images via Reuters

You'd wonder how it might have panned out had the Scots not been busy trying to set new records for not rolling away. That was Mr Gauzerre's hot topic, and he had to make the point repeatedly. Given that Scotland were the ones making all the tackles - 100 attempts as against Ireland's 28 in the first half - this clearly was an important issue. It was what got the ball rolling for Sexton off the tee, and kept it tipping away until half time by which stage Ireland were 21-13 in front.

CJ Stander had been a battering ram - he was made to carry a rugby ball - and got the opening try with a dive over the top after Ireland had been camped in Scotland's corner for five minutes. It helped that by then Ireland were playing against 14 men after John Barclay was binned for killing ruck ball. By the time he rejoined the game it had got away from his team, with Earls's try making the home team look super efficient when granted the numerical advantage.

They had needed it, for we had already been treated to what would be the best individual try of the game, courtesy of the explosive Stuart Hogg. Ireland got adventurous on their own exit after Sexton's third penalty, but really good defending initially by Alex Dunbar to hassle Sexton, and then Duncan Taylor with a tackle on Simon Zebo, changed the complexion of it.

Murray's box kick was awry and Hogg countered at blistering speed, picking a gap in between Mike Ross and Rory Best to score with a terrific 60-metre run.

Hogg pulled three points back just before the break, leaving Ireland at 21-13 and with the benefit of the breeze for the second half. For much of that period Scotland looked a decent side, despite slipping out of sight on the scoreboard. So the 10 points gap at the end will have been hard for them to take, albeit better then the 15 they were staring at after Toner's try.

Once the home team got a sniff of the Scottish try line you knew how it would end. The third try was a dot down by Murray, on 49 minutes, and despite a try by Richie Gray, it was Toner's try that put the issue to bed. It would be pretty restless thereafter, but Dunbar's try came too late to give the Scots something to chase.

Scorers - Ireland: Stander, Earls, Murray, Toner try each; Sexton 3 pens, 3 cons; Scotland: Hogg, R Gray, Dunbar try each; Laidlaw 2 pens, 2 cons.

Ireland: S Zebo; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, K Earls (F McFadden 79); J Sexton (yc 77), C Murray (E Reddan 79); J McGrath (C Healy 68), R Best (capt)(R Strauss 68), M Ross (N White 63), D Ryan (U Dillane 70), D Toner, CJ Stander, J Heaslip, T O'Donnell (R Ruddock 70)

Scotland: S Hogg; T Seymour, D Taylor, A Dunbar (yc 68-78), T Visser (S Lamont 70); D Weir (P Horne 63), G Laidlaw (capt); A Dickinson (R Sutherland 67), R Ford (S McInally 51), W Nel (M Low 68), R Gray, T Swinson (R Harley 64), J Barclay (yc 26-36), R Wilson, J Hardie (J Strauss 53).

Referee: P Gauzere (France).

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