SCOTLAND produced a performance bristling with early ambition and tackling heart, but they were undone by an inability to finish against an Ireland side that grew into a commanding display.
Ireland soaked up the pressure and pounced clinically for a try just before half-time and again seven minutes after the break to ruin Scottish promise, which had had the hosts on the back foot for decent spells, leaving the Scots chasing a 15-point deficit they simply lacked the creativity to dent.
Jonny Sexton, the Ireland fly-half, had created their one line-break in the first half in the lead-up to the first try and the differing experience and clinical finishing between the sides in the back line, was hugely significant in the final result.
The Irish had been dealt a blow in the morning when talismanic skipper Paul O’Connell was ruled out by a chest infection, but the fact that the Irish lineout matched Scotland’s and his replacement as skipper, Jamie Heaslip, was named man of the match showed it to have little effect.
Dublin had been eerily quiet for a Six Nations morning, but once Lansdowne Road filled and ‘Ireland’s Call’ ratcheted up the Sunday atmosphere, the glorious blue sky and perfect conditions – in contrast to the downpours 24 hours previously – made the delayed start for these teams welcome.
And it was Scotland who set the early tempo. Stuart Hogg claimed the first Garryowen, and though Duncan Weir had an attempted kick charged down his team-mates regathered and ran through countless phases with a terrific variety in their attack. Forwards David Denton, Moray Low and Tim Swinson were prominent as were backs Sean Maitland and Hogg, both almost through after a superb flat pass from Weir attacking the gain-line defied the pre-match talk of a ten-man Scottish
Greig Laidlaw struck the left post with a first penalty attempt from over 40 metres, and within a minute Ireland responded, sweeping into the Scottish half. But Scotland scrambled well and then held up the Irish pack after a ten-metre driven lineout, forcing a turnover of possession.
David Denton did fine clearing-up work as the Scottish scrum came under pressure, but a ruck penalty against Kelly Brown, the Scotland skipper – after a wayward kick by Maitland invited Rob Kearney to attack – allowed Jonny Sexton to open the scoring with a 35-metre kick bisecting the uprights.
There were just 13 minutes on the clock and it felt as if we had played an entire half. And the see-saw continued. Ireland attacked, Scotland shut them out, and Scotland stretched Ireland, attacking wide, contrary to the expectations of a Weir-led kicking game. Denton and the impressive Ryan Wilson led the charge, earning a penalty which Laidlaw this time struck right between the posts, to level the score with 19 minutes gone.
A fine tackle by Alex Dunbar stopped Sexton firmly in his tracks, but the entire Scottish back line was penalised by Joubert for being offside, and the Ireland fly-half duly nudged the hosts 6-3 in front with 22 minutes on the clock.
Sean Lamont halted Irish momentum with a fine tackle, Brown mopped up the turnover but a lost lineout on the Irish 22 after 26 minutes was a significant waste of opportunity. The pack made amends with fine counter-rucking to force a turnover and Denton picked up off a Scottish scrum going backwards and nearly made it to the right-hand corner.
Another lost lineout let Ireland off the hook and cost Scotland winger Maitland, who fell heavily clutching his leg after an airborne clash going for Conor Murray’s clearance. He was replaced by Max Evans.
O’Driscoll was pressurised into a loose pass and Sean Lamont then dumped the Irish legend on his backside, as Scotland worked hard to create chances, but they could not turn it into anything tangible, and Ireland showed them how in a frenetic finish to the half.
Sexton was initially closed down going for a clearance kick deep in his own half, but the fly-half set off on a waltzing run over halfway, exposing poor tackles, and sent a fine pass 20 metres to Heaslip on the left touchline. The No 8 barrelled through Hogg’s tackle and got to the line through Evans’, but TV replays showed he had a foot in touch.
Scotland, critically, failed to grasp that escape chance through losing their short lineout. They then defended heroically – Dunbar’s tackle on Heaslip one of many fine efforts from the centre on his Six Nations debut – but Ireland kept ball and built momentum until creating an overlap on the right for Andrew Trimble to run in unchallenged.
Scotland came out of the break fired up and two long Weir kicks turned pressure on Rob Kearney, and brought the instant reward of a penalty, which Laidlaw converted to cut the deficit immediately to 11-6, but the boost was short-lived as Scotland were again left cursing a set-piece error.
Ireland lost ball attacking the Scottish 22 and Scotland had the scrum, but it was turned by Ireland and they picked up and attacked, referee Craig Joubert waving them on. Scotland denied Kearney in the left corner, but were penalised at the subsequent ruck.
Ireland kicked to touch and then mauled the lineout over the Scottish line as easily as witnessed at this level. Heaslip was the main to come up with the ball, and Sexton converted, and the Scots had a 12-point lead to haul back inside 30 minutes.
Taylor, who had been enjoying a solid first Six Nations game, squandered possession with a kick out on the full, which handed his side another period of defending inside their own half. The defence was good, but Hamilton’s propensity for indiscipline reared with a ruck infringement, which Sexton kicked into a 15-point lead with 23 minutes remaining.
That prompted Scott Johnson to replace Hamilton with Richie Gray and openside Brown with Johnnie Beattie, but Beattie’s first carry ended with a disputed turnover and did nothing to halt Ireland’s increased tempo.
But Scotland came back with ambition, Weir moving ball wide and Hogg beating two men to launch a counter-attack from his 22, which led to a Scottish lineout ten metres from the Irish line. But again, Scotland failed the lineout test. Beattie won the ball but his tap-down was intercepted and Ireland cleared to halfway.
Moving into the final 15 minutes, Scotland introduced Matt Scott for Taylor, Geoff Cross for Low and Pat MacArthur for Ford, while Ireland freshened up with a new front row and Tommy O’Donnell on for O’Mahony. O’Driscoll then showed his worth, zeroing in on Evans as an overlap emerged, while Scotland seemed to lose conviction.
There was a sense as Scots players trooped off disconsolate that they believed the game to be gone from them, three scores in 15 minutes too much, while Ireland by contrast were running with renewed vigour.
Kearney underlined that when he followed up good charging runs by Toner and Henry, escaped Alasdair Dickinson’s tackle and wriggled from Wilson to reach a hand over the line on the occasion of his 50th cap.
Sexton converted to secure the game, 28-6, with just over eight minutes left and Scotland were left to rue little errors that undid much good work once again.
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Trimble, Heaslip, Kearney; Pens: Sexton 3; Cons: Sexton 2.
Scotland: Pens: Laidlaw 2.
Ireland: R Kearney; D Kearney, B O’Driscoll, L Marshall, A Trimble; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D Toner, D Tuohy, P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip (capt). Subs: M Moore for Ross 63mins, J McGrath for Healy 64, S Cronin for Best, T O’Donnell for O’Mahony, both 66, F McFadden for O’Driscoll, I Boss for Murray, P Jackson for Sexton,I Henderson for Toner, all 73.
Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland, A Dunbar, D Taylor, S Lamont; D Weir, G Laidlaw; R Grant, R Ford, M Low, T Swinson, J Hamilton, R Wilson, K Brown (capt), D Denton. Subs: M Evans for Maitland 32mins, A Dickinson for Grant 53, J Beattie for Brown, R Gray for Hamilton, both 57, M Scott for Taylor, G Cross for Low, both 65, P MacArthur for Ford 67, C Cusiter for Laidlaw 73.