Tuesday 23 July 2019

Ireland save the best until last

Scotland 10 Ireland 40

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

HE GETS almost everything else right, so why not hand it over to Joe Schmidt to describe an utterly ridiculous day of Six Nations rugby, probably the greatest day in the tournament's storied history?

"Lolly-scramble" was the phrase the Ireland coach used to sum up a tumultuous seven and a half hours that left the man who loves controlling controllables watching France attempt to run a penalty from their own five-metre line with the clock red through his fingers before Rory Kockott saw sense and ended the madness.

In the end, Paul O'Connell lifted the new Six Nations trophy to the delight of the Irish masses huddled in the west stand at Murrayfield. Bon Jovi's 'Living On a Prayer' provided the soundtrack as the players and fans combined for a sing-song and it summed the day up nicely.

"It was certainly better craic than last year," O'Connell said with a smile after a day when he joined the late Dr Karl Mullen in the record books as a back-to-back Championship-winning skipper.

Earlier, Schmidt had overseen a return to the kind of attacking rugby that was the hallmark of his Leinster team as Ireland caught the target of 21 points set for them by Wales, before inviting England to chase 26 points at Twickenham.

Ireland left nine points behind them from the kicking tee, but a piece of brilliant defensive play from Jamie Heaslip saved seven and so it evened itself out over the day. Crucially, it proved to be enough.

"As much as anything it's grit and character and determination," Schmidt said of his No 8.

"Jamie can make those tackles without a doubt but he could have just given up a little bit there, particularly in the context we had a good lead, but we knew that every point would be precious and his determination managed to give us a level of comfort."

After a fitful return from a long lay-off, Sean O'Brien found his rhythm and reminded the world why he was so missed, while alongside him Peter O'Mahony was a relentless presence.

At the fulcrum of it all was O'Connell, forever young at 35. He drove the tight five to new heights, forcing Scotland into corners and providing the perfect platform for the backs to thrive.

With Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton working in tandem, the centres carried hard and fast and the prodigal son prospered out wide. Luke Fitzgerald was close to giving up the ghost during his four years of injury torment, but this was reward for his perseverance.

Working off far batter ball than anything Simon Zebo saw in the previous four games, the Leinster wing gave an all-singing, all-dancing display of what made him the most exciting back the country has produced since Brian O'Driscoll. His interplay with Robbie Henshaw promised much for the autumn.

On the other wing, Tommy Bowe was back to his Rolls Royce best, striking from deep and off set-plays and enjoying the licence given to him by this end-of-season, sun-in-the-sky race for points.

Over the course of their second successive Six Nations, Ireland showed they can adapt to any situation and are more than capable of running the ball when the need arises.

They went at Scotland from the off, running the ball from inside their own '22' and within five minutes O'Connell opened the scoring with a rare try. On a mission to build a score rather than chase one, Sexton added the conversion and a penalty.

At that stage, Scotland already had one hand on the Wooden Spoon and they fought back accordingly, playing their part in an entertaining affair.

Greig Laidlaw got them off the mark, but despite plenty of promise Vern Cotter's side lack Ireland's clinical edge.

After some sumptuous link-up play by Fitzgerald and Henshaw moved Ireland into position, their defensive maul squeezed Scotland's territory and set-up a lineout on the edge of the '22'.

Ireland faked a maul set-up and Devin Toner slipped Sean O'Brien in behind, where poor Dougie Fife didn't stand a chance. Sexton converted and Ireland eased closer to the magic number.

There was a setback when Finn Russell went over in the corner after some uncharacteristic sloppiness at lineout time, but a Sexton penalty sent Ireland in with a 10-point lead at half-time.

After the break, he added another before ending the game as a contest on 50 minutes when the scrum forced a penalty and Ireland went for it off the lineout, sending Henshaw up hard and flat, before Sexton and Jared Payne combined for the New Zealander to score his first try for his adopted country. Sexton converted and Ireland had half an hour to get the point they needed to go ahead of Wales and then set England a target.

They could have done without Sexton catching the yips, hitting the post from dead-centre before sending a slightly more difficult effort wide. Another Fitzgerald break gave him a third chance and this time he nailed it, before O'Brien added a fourth try from close range and Ian Madigan converted.

Scotland came in search of a consolation score only for Heaslip to somehow force Hogg's knock-on on the line. Madigan missed a penalty with the last play and that was that.

All that was left was the harrowing waiting game, before they emerged once again into the darkness as champions. On a day when none of the three teams left standing really deserved to lose, Ireland earned their win because they didn't die wondering, and their reward was history.

Scotland - S Hogg; D Fife (T Visser 12-22), M Bennett, M Scott (G Tonks 69), T Seymour; F Russell, G Laidlaw (S Hidalgo-Clyne 57); R Grant (A Dickinson 31), R Ford (F Brown 53), E Murray (G Cross 12); J Hamilton (T Swinson 53), J Gray; A Ashe (R Harley 57), B Cowan, D Denton.

Ireland - R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan (71), C Murray (E Reddan 80); C Healy (J McGrath 53), R Best (S Cronin 62), M Ross (M Moore 46); D Toner (I Henderson 62), P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony, S O'Brien (J Murphy 73), J Heaslip.

Ref - J Garces (France)

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