Monday 19 February 2018

Dreams of Grand Slam glory left in tatters

Scotland 27 Ireland 22

Keith Earls scores Ireland’s first try despite the tackle of Finn Russell.
Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Keith Earls scores Ireland’s first try despite the tackle of Finn Russell. Photo: Ramsey Cardy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you didn't tune in to this on tv yesterday you can imagine the unbridled joy among the Scotland fans at the final whistle in Murrayfield.

Well, a bit earlier than that even - for the couple of minutes before that blast from referee Romain Poite they were celebrating, for by then they knew they were home and hosed, the confirmation coming with Greig Laidlaw's last-second penalty conversion. So long the whipping boys against Ireland, so long second best to pretty much everyone when it came to the opening game of the Six Nations, this time they exploded out of the blocks, were caught, and had the bottle to come back and edge over the line first.

So at last Vern Cotter gets to put one over on Joe Schmidt, and his final campaign as Scotland coach gets a turbo boost of a start. Always in these match-ups it's been Schmidt slotting into magnanimous mode. Rather this time he'll be reflecting on how massive work rate and energy wasn't enough to close the deal.

Blitzed initially, Ireland went in 21-8 down at half-time but came back to lead 22-21 just into the final quarter. The nature of the comeback, however, never suggested they would be pulling away. Maybe one more score would have been enough to subdue the Scots, but from start to finish the ratio between Ireland's work rate and their reward was utterly skewed: the first was massive and the second minimal. The best that can be said is that there's nothing wrong with their fitness.

It was a compelling Test match, but featured a humongous number of collisions in the battle for some advantage. Physically Scotland will be pretty sore after this, having had to make 181 tackles to just 107 from Ireland, who were carrying industrial loads - but much of it in the slow lane. With Brexit on everyone's minds, there was a hard border running across the gain-line, and Ireland were bogged down in paperwork.

Robbie Henshaw did a fair impression of a flanker in this regard. Meantime all three back-rowers, plus Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong, were constantly horsing the ball forward. Scotland - who did a lap of honour at the finish, which seemed excessive after a first-round tie - were sharper and quicker out wide.

A dejected Ireland leave the field. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
A dejected Ireland leave the field. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

From early on it looked like an aberration, statistically, with the home team defying logic to be running away with the game. On nine minutes man of the match Stuart Hogg - the Kiwis will be laying all sorts of traps for him in the summer - opened the scoring with a try typical of him: searing pace, handy touchdown, helped by a fortuitous bounce that took him wide of Garry Ringrose.

On 22 minutes he was over again after the Scots did well to regather from a lineout that went over the top - so well did they do that, that Keith Earls was isolated quickly out wide and Hogg stepped in to sprint over.

With Greig Laidlaw landing both conversions Scotland were 14-0 up before Earls got over in the corner, with Paddy Jackson failing to add the points. But a mix-up between Conor Murray and Rob Kearney handed the ball back to Scotland as Ireland were trying to exit. Next Scotland forced a lineout, planted centre Alex Dunbar towards the front of it, and with Ireland not paying him much attention, promptly threw it to him. He skipped over for one of those seamless transformations from training pitch to match day.

An illustrative point presented itself soon after. With Ireland 7-1 ahead on the penalty count Earls gave Scotland just their second award with side entry at a ruck. It summed up Ireland's predicament: working their asses off to hold on to the ball and make some headway only to find blue jerseys popping up from everywhere.

Scotland's Greig Laidlaw kicks a penalty at full time to leave the final score 27-22 to Scotland. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Scotland's Greig Laidlaw kicks a penalty at full time to leave the final score 27-22 to Scotland. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The reasons why Scotland were able to keep such shape in their defensive line were two-fold: their first-up tackling was accurate, with a manic touch; and because Ireland were so easily read on their plays out the back, Scotland didn't need to hold defenders. Rather they could stand off initially and then attack hard the ball carrier who by then was well behind the gain-line.

You could easily imagine the heart rate of Ireland's players being off the charts. Moreover it's demoralising to be working so hard for so little reward, especially when a fair bit of that work was done at the coalface in the Scotland 22 where the home team were able to rack up a stack of penalties - between original awards and then supplementaries on advantage plays - without paying a price. By the break Ireland were close on 60 per cent in both territory and possession, yet trailed 3-1 on tries and by 13 points on the scoreboard.

Naturally enough the theme in the Ireland dressing room would have centred on scoring first in the second half, or folding their tent. They scored first. It was a big call to take a scrum - they were dominant there all day - instead of three handy points, with over half an hour still to play, but it paid off eventually with Iain Henderson squeezing over on an advantage play. It never dawned on M Poite to come back and produce a card for good measure.

With something at last to show for their efforts they came back for more, only for Jamie Heaslip to blow a glorious opportunity with an unnecessary offload under the Scotland posts. On 63 minutes, however, Jackson did well to get over after a blizzard of Irish carries, the best of which was from Ringrose.

The conversion put Ireland ahead for the first time, but between fatigue and a lack of composure they couldn't stay in front. Inevitably they conceded a kickable penalty after soaking too many tackles - they might have chopped instead - which Laidlaw nailed, and then when trying to do what the Scots had done, with six minutes left on the clock, Conor Murray kicked away badly a ball he should have kept in hand. That too summed up Ireland. Murray is a key figure, and when his influence is minor the team struggle to win. Well done to the Scots.

Scorers - Scotland: Hogg 2 tries, Dunbar try; Laidlaw 2 pens, 3 cons Ireland: Jackson try, pen, 2 cons, Earls, Henderson try each

Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland, H Jones (M Bennett 60), A Dunbar, T Seymour; F Russell (D Weir 46- 52 blood), G Laidlaw (capt); A Dell (G Reid 56), F Brown (R Ford 27), Z Ferguson, R Gray, J Gray, R Wilson, J Strauss (T Swinson 66), H Watson (J Barclay 52)

Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls (T Bowe 68), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; P Jackson, C Murray; J McGrath (C Healy 56), R Best (capt), T Furlong (J Ryan 69), I Henderson (U Dillane 64), D Toner, CJ Stander, J Heaslip, S O'Brien (J van der Flier 66)

Referee: R Poite (France)

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