The atmosphere around Dublin might have been damp but this was an engrossing test match at the Aviva Stadium that Scotland were heavily competitive in during the first half, but were ultimately the creators of their own downfall.
The first half was a tactical affair, both sides attempting to nullify the other’s strengths. High kicks from Jonny Sexton were peppered down but not on debutant Blair Kinghorn, but Sean Maitland who was able to the task. After just 5 minutes, Ireland were kicking penalties to the corner, supremely confident in their abilities. They threw the lineout to Watson, but it was an early sign that Ireland were planning on heading in just the one direction: forward.
The big carriers in the Irish pack weren’t punching big holes but they were always making ground, forcing Scotland to scramble as they did often and pretty well. Despite a misfiring lineout and a missed knock on from Huw Jones, Scotland took the first point with a Greig Laidlaw penalty.
Good hands by Kinghorn and Wilson in the wide channels were a promising feature of Scotland’s first incursion into the Irish 22 but were marred by a serious looking head knock to Ryan Wilson. He went off for an HIA but did not return.
The bad news got worse as Pete Horne attempted a Finn Russell style loop pass but it was more like the one that Jacob Stockdale picked off against Wales two weeks ago to end the Welsh challenge. He did it again here, and while it didn’t kill off Scotland’s chances it was a hammer blow, especially in light of the butchered opportunity at the other end minutes later.
Innocuously trucking it down the wing, Huw Jones chipped into a space behind the Irish defence and regathered suddenly leaving him just a 2 on 1, with Stuart Hogg the supporting man. Simple, right? Sadly Jones’s pass off his left hand was a horror show, bouncing behind Hogg and blowing the try.
Yes, this Scotland backline can create tries from anything. But they don’t always score them, as we saw today.
Another try for Stockdale just before half-time was killer, the lively Garry Ringrose showing why he is held in such high regard. Much was made before the game of the matchup between Jones and Ringrose, but the Irish centre came out on top on this occasion.
Half-time: Ireland 14-3 Scotland
Ireland came back on to the pitch intent on knocking Scotland out of this as a contest, while Scotland knew they really needed to score first. Kinghorn made a half break, but was penalised for holding on and Ireland were right back into Scotland’s 22.
While not particularly lovely to watch, Ireland led by Sexton were pinpoint accurate in their pressure on Scotland in the 22 while Scotland did not get the change at the breakdown from Barnes that they had from Nigel Owens in the Calcutta Cup. A penalty was kicked to the corner, Connor Murray sniped off the back of the maul and dotted it down through a mass of Scottish defenders.
At 21-3 after 49 minutes, that did indeed look like the knockout. Joe Schmidt’s Leinster practically invented “championship minutes” as a phrase and they were there for all to see. Scotland were always chasing it after that.
Scotland had another clear scoring chance when Hogg passed it over Kinghorn’s head on penalty advantage, but luckily they had a second bit of the cherry with a set piece from the penalty scrum and nice hands executed a very nice try for Kinghorn on his debut. Laidlaw’s conversion from out wide fell just short. Kinghorn was assured and looked comfortable and should get another chance against Italy. Having almost silenced the doubters two weeks ago, questions will resurface about Pete Horne who left several big holes in the defence, and threw that interception.
Horne and Jones were again finding holes with a little improvement in confidence from the try, but the inaccuracy of the last pass was perhaps caused by overambition – or misjudging lanky Kinghorn’s height quite considerably and opportunities were passing Scotland. It was at least refreshing to see Scotland working calmly to get back into it rather than chasing too hard too soon.
But Ireland had a steady stream of penalties to put them back where they wanted to play – and where Scotland didn’t – which undid all the good work by Scotland, of which there was plenty.
By this point Joe Schmidt’s men were mentally chasing not only a Grand Slam but also the bonus point that would potentially secure the 6 Nations Championship a week early and like all very good teams when they are in determined mood, it can be very hard to change the momentum in the other direction. For Scotland, this meant a second half spent tackling and trying to stop mauls like the one that gave Sean Cronin the bonus point try with ten minutes to play.
Ireland are brutal to watch, but brutally effective.
They gave Scotland enough chances to keep this as competitive on the scoreboard as it looked on the pitch, including a knock on at the line in the final minutes. For mostly mental reasons you suspect, the Scots couldn’t take them and this will remain a game that got away from them.
Over the course of the game, there were probably 3 or 4 guaranteed tries left out there, and that will rankle the team in preparation this week to think that the scoreline could have been much closer. Scotland were good, but not great. You don’t beat the top 3 teams with good. Ireland took the few chances they have, and that was they key.
Scotland can take much from this performance which was dogged and at brief times truly inspired, but was not clinical enough when the opportunities presented themselves to reverse the recent tide of history away from home in the 6 Nations.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)
SRBlog Man of the Match: A hard one this as everyone who performed well in a Scotland shirt still probably had a black mark or two against their name, especially in the backline. Stuart McInally was tireless and put in a huge amount of work especially once Wilson went off, but must bear some responsibility for the lineout. Finn made few errors but couldn’t quite get the sparkle going and Huw Jones was very mixed. For me the tireless Hamish Watson never gave up even with the clock past 80 minutes and with John Barclay fought hard once they lost Wilson against an oppressive Irish defence.