Wednesday 24 January 2018

Sting in the tail as revved-up visitors salvage some pride

Ireland 20
Scotland 23

Cian Healy of Ireland is tackled by Sean Lamont and Graeme Morrison
Cian Healy of Ireland is tackled by Sean Lamont and Graeme Morrison

Sometimes you come up against a team who are winless from four games and they go into their last assignment looking for it all to end as quickly as possible.

And other times the team with the same stats approach the last day as if it was tailor-made for them to salvage some pride. The atmosphere around the Ireland camp for the past few days had the Scots firmly planted in the second category. So you can imagine what it was like over in the blue corner.

As one of their number promised as Andy Robinson's team left Croke Park after their captain's run on Friday: "They're up for this one!" The delivery, with a glint in his eye, was emphatic.

And sure enough they were. By the end of the last Six Nations game at Croke Park -- Ireland started and finished at this venue with losses -- the Scots were up for a good night. This win may not have saved their season statistically, but it certainly did in every other respect. Nobody had emptied them en route to Dublin and that was never going to happen here. Yet Ireland started trying to do just that and instead ended up in a tit-for-tat chase for points -- a chase they lost.

They were handicapped in this regard by a line-out that caved in after the break, and lost seven from 17 over the 80 minutes. It's hard to get into try-scoring or penalty-gathering territory if that part of the set piece is creaking. And the other part wasn't too clever either.

After the scrumming shambles at Murrayfield last week referee Jonathan Kaplan was going to penalise rather than reset. Ireland lost out in critical calls here. And man did they suffer in their challenge for ball at the breakdown. If Declan Kidney had a bee in his bonnet about the emphasis at the breakdown in favour of the tackled player then it's turned into a swarm now.

The breakdown was a disaster for Ireland whose success to this point had been predicated on a defence that slows the ball and then strangles the next carrier. Back to the drawing board lads.

What will irk him most was the call that allowed man-of-the-match Dan Parks -- picking up his third award of the tournament -- to nail the winning kick with less than a minute left. Replacement Rob Kearney was the tackled player done for not releasing when the crowd were baying for Mr Kaplan to penalise either or both of the Scottish challengers.

And the winning kick? Well it started off heading for Drumcondra and then took a swerve towards Marino and in the process went over the bar. There was time for a bit of huffing and puffing but it was game over.

Rewind to the first three minutes, which felt like another day altogether. In that whirlwind start Ireland made three line breaks as they wrapped around in midfield or passed the ball in behind decoy runners. It was fast and very threatening, but ultimately unproductive because on each occasion there was a handling mistake.

And soon enough you got the feeling that Ireland needed to put some pressure on their opponents by means other than running them off their feet. The Scots, meanwhile, were efficiency itself, scoring on their first visit to the Irish 22. They would score on their last one as well -- each time with a Parks penalty.

The goal-kicking was a story too. Jonny Sexton was called ashore with half an hour to go. His last act was to nail a highly pressured kick with Ronan O'Gara having handed him the kicking tee. He had missed the previous two, however, and it added to the impression that Ireland would struggle and that this has become a serious issue for him. He had his happier moments -- like putting Brian O'Driscoll over for a try that looked sublime in real time and then a metre forward on the replay. That was after 11 minutes when the 80,313 crowd were content that the spectacle would have a happy ending.

Within four minutes of that however, Johnnie Beattie had done brilliantly to score for Scotland, holding off three defenders after another Irish handling error had opened the door for them.

It was their third and last try of the championship. And still they won. By half-time they had got out to 14-7 with Parks taking six from a penalty and drop-goal after Sexton had missed on the half hour with a shot that would have given Ireland the lead.

Still, it was hardly a massive hill to climb. Then, just after Sexton missed again, Parks steepened it with a penalty against Kearney for not releasing and the unease in the stadium was palpable. The Triple Crown winners-elect were trailing 17-7 and the critical elements were overheating.

It was as if any chance Ireland had of getting a run on the Scots would be undermined by the concession of another penalty or the loss of another line-out. You hoped the excellent Keith Earls would get the ball in space for his brilliance shone like a beacon. He saw less of the ball the longer it went on. Yes, Ireland had their chances: the best maybe when Gordon D'Arcy was stripped of the ball by Sean Lamont in the far corner with the away team sorely stretched. It required them to hold their set piece to escape and, of course, they did that.

By that stage they had closed the gap to seven with Sexton's last act, and then on 64 minutes deliverance loomed in the familiar shape of Tommy Bowe. Lovely straight running by O'Driscoll and D'Arcy opened the door for him and his reach was just about okay, though it looked like it should have been referred upstairs. And what did O'Gara do with the touchline conversion? He stuck it over the black spot, that's what.

So 17-17 with 16 minutes left but there would be no salvation, no fifth Triple Crown in seven seasons. A crooked throw let the Scots off the hook on the next attack and then Jamie Heaslip was done at the breakdown for Parks to edge them ahead again. O'Gara levelled the game again with a nerveless strike on 76 minutes and the tension was enormous going into the endgame.

You knew the key figure here would be Mr Kaplan. We were just into the 79th minute when he did Kearney at that breakdown and Parks delivered again. No time to come back unless the restart could be reclaimed. It couldn't. Scotland's day, and night.

Sunday Independent

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