IN A way, this was not so much a game of rugby as episode two of a three-part mini-series. It only made sense if you knew what had happened in part one, set in Rome, and its full significance was not laid bare until the end of the concluding chapter in London.
By the time Finn Russell kicked off at 2.30pm, Ireland knew they had to win by 21 points or more to go above Wales in the final Six Nations standings. They succeeded, but then had to wait almost two hours before being confirmed as champions when England just fell short of the required margin against France.
It all made for a long afternoon of thrilling viewing for supporters of the countries in contention for the title, and for the millions watching on TV. But, for Scotland, it was another deeply dispiriting afternoon.
True, yet again we witnessed a few flashes of promise, largely from the same players who had been most impressive in the previous four defeats, Finn Russell, Mark Bennett and Stuart Hogg being chief among them. But we also saw the same sorry failings, above all in defence and on the disciplinary front, where Geoff Cross became the fifth Scot to be sin-binned in five matches.
Some of the failings were caused by commendable efforts to keep playing creatively, and thus fell into the readily forgivable category. Bennett, for example, at times gave away possession simply by trying too hard to keep an attack alive, when patient recycling was the preferable option. But other shortcomings were more serious, and more widespread throughout the team.
Once again, Scotland failed to perform consistently for anything like the whole match. When they learn to avoid playing too much rugby too loosely, they should be able to stretch their energies and their attention span across the 80 minutes. Until then, they will be vulnerable to the depredations of cannier opponents.
That weakness was certainly all too obvious in the opening minutes on Saturday, and exploited by that wiliest of campaigners, Paul O’Connell. Ten phases into a relentless attack, the Ireland captain got the scoreboard ticking by ploughing over from inside the five-metre line, with Jim Hamilton the only defender to get close enough even to lay a hand on him.
Jonny Sexton converted then added a penalty and, although Greig Laidlaw replied with three points towards the end of the first quarter, Ireland soon stretched their lead further. This time it was flanker Sean O’Brien who exploited a glaring gap in the home defence, bursting through the back of a lineout and into open prairie. Dougie Fife was unable to stop him with a despairing tackle and Sexton added two points to make it 17-3.
The immediate causes of the score may have been slack defending and O’Brien’s opportunism, but the situation had arisen because of Irish pressure. Scotland had been unable to relieve the pressure from their own lineout within their 22, and were forced to clear for touch to concede Ireland the throw.
That was the home team at their most hapless, but they soon showed the better face of their game with an attack up the left that resulted in a try for Russell. Hogg did the initial damage, then swift recycling by Laidlaw found flanker Adam Ashe, who put the stand-off in for his first try in professional rugby.
Laidlaw converted and, although another Sexton penalty took the half-time score to 10-20, the position at that stage did not look too bleak for Scotland. But they began the second half poorly, conceding ten more points within ten minutes. They conceded another ten after that as well, and, as at Twickenham seven days earlier, failed to add to their own first-half total.
The initial damage was done by another Sexton penalty. Then came Ireland’s third try, which, like the first two, exposed glaring gaps in the Scotland defence. Jared Payne was the beneficiary this time, bursting through from short range with Blair Cowan this time being the last line of defence who was unable to halt the Irish momentum.
Sexton’s conversion made it 10-30, and that 21-point margin was in sight. The proximity of that target seemed to unsettle Ireland’s playmaker, who was wide with his next two penalty attempts but, just after the hour, he was on the mark with another three-pointer and the massive Irish contingent in the crowd was able to start celebrating.
With the pressure off, Ireland began to play with more confidence and, inside the closing ten minutes, O’Brien claimed his second try and his team’s fourth. A half dummy, an inside step and the flanker was free of what little defensive cover remained after a series of drives had gone to within a couple of metres of the line. They were queueing up to score by that time and O’Brien had three or four men to his left. But he rightly opted for the try under the posts, and replacement Ian Madigan added the extra points to take his team’s lead to 30 points – a margin that equalled Scotland’s worst Six Nations showing against Ireland, the 6-36 defeat in 2003.
There was still time for Hogg to cross the line and, in the light of what happened at Twickenham, where England fell a full score short of the required total, that score, had it stood, could have dealt a fatal blow to Ireland’s chances of retaining the title. Instead, the officials correctly ruled that the full-back had dropped the ball rather than touched it down, with the arm of Jamie Heaslip playing a part in dislodging it.
Madigan missed another penalty at the death but Ireland were still massively proud of what they had done. “Coming in on the bus today, if that margin had been available, I’d have been ecstatic,” their coach, Joe Schmidt, said afterwards, as the England-France clash was still in its first half. It is fair to say that the New Zealander was that little bit more ecstatic once that match in London ended, confirming Ireland as champions by a margin of six points.
Scotland coach Vern Cotter, in contrast, has the look of a man who would not be rendered ecstatic even if his team lifted the World Cup and he won the lottery on the same day. His team have done little or nothing to challenge that default expression in these past five matches.
Scorers: Scotland – Try: Russell. Con: Laidlaw. Pen: Laidlaw. Ireland – Tries: O’Connell, O’Brien (2), Payne. Cons: Sexton (3), Madigan. Pens: Sexton (4).
Scotland: Hogg; Fife, Bennett, Scott, Seymour; Russell, Laidlaw; Grant, Ford, Murray, Hamilton, J Gray, Ashe, Cowan, Denton. Subs: Cross for Murray 12 mins, Dickinson for Grant 32, Swinson for Hamilton 53, Brown for Ford 53, Hidalgo-Clyne for Laidlaw 56, Harley for Ashe 56, Tonks for Scott 70, Visser for Bennett 71.
Ireland: Kearney; Bowe, Payne, Henshaw, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross, Toner, O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip. Subs: Moore for Ross 46 mins, McGrath for Healy 53, Cronin for Best 62, Henderson for Toner 62, Madigan for Sexton 71, Murphy for O’Brien 73, Reddan for Murray 80.
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