Aidan Smith: Scotland unable to keep wounded beasts at bay

Scots of a nervous disposition – and despite all the free-scoring flair and the feelgood vibe around Murrayfield these days that still accounts for quite a lot of us – approached this game with some degree of apprehension.
Ireland's Conor Murray scores his side's first try of the game. Pic: Ian Rutherford/PA WireIreland's Conor Murray scores his side's first try of the game. Pic: Ian Rutherford/PA Wire
Ireland's Conor Murray scores his side's first try of the game. Pic: Ian Rutherford/PA Wire

Ireland had rumbled into Edinburgh as wounded, angry beasts. England had done a number on them, stripped a coat or two from their No.2-in-the-world sheen and made some big, braggish billboards of arm-in-arm green-clad warriors declaring “No stopping these backstops” seem a bit daft.

Coach Joe Schmidt, looking marginally less stressed than Theresa May, admitted to sleepless nights. Last week’s chasing, he said, would be a reality check for a nation who had been getting too carried away. Smugness wasn’t becoming for Ireland but neither was defeat. There would be hell to pay.

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How did England do it? A game of darts, apparently. The Red Rose superstars discovered the simple, working-class pleasures of a night at the oche and bonded.

But Scotland weren’t inclined to copy them. Quote of the week had come from Greig Laidlaw: “We’re not going to go out and try to play like England. We’re going to play like Scotland.”

Of course they don’t quite have the weaponry of England, slightly fewer monster trucks. Scotland wanted to play a handling game, swing the ball out wide, as exemplified by two Huw Jones bursts in the opening minutes.

Ireland prefer to keep things narrow, and there was some criticism of them against England for not having a Plan B. Well, they broke up the left for the game’s first try, though there was some fortune about it when Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland were unable to tidy up a kick, gifting Conor Murray an easy finish.

Those fans trying to keep the jitters at bay were pretty much blown into Murrayfield by the strong gusts and early arrivals under tartan rugs glimpsed Ireland captain Rory Best practise his lineout throws with a fish-landing net. Best said beforehand he expected – nay demanded – that his men perform with “more intensity and more accuracy” but there were a bundle of errors – from both sides – in the first half and these couldn’t really be blamed on the much-mooted Storm Erik because conditions had calmed.

Perhaps Erik was bowing down in acknowledgement of the flashing skills that Murrayfield’s 13th sellout in a row had come to see. But the spectacle lost one stellar name when Stuart Hogg had to retire hurt, the challenge on him greeted by booing, and then Jonathan Sexton disappeared up the tunnel as well. Hoggy’s exit was a huge blow and Scotland still seemed to be reeling from it when Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale burst through the middle for his try.

Ireland at this point looked determined to prove they were worth the hype, the garlands, the ranking, the World Cup dreams and the Brexit jokes. Their forwards were building up a head of steam, which was the last thing Scotland wanted, but then Finn Russell, without Sexton to counter and with his replacement Joey Carbery quickly making his own contributions to the error-fest, started to find pockets of space. Many of these were Finn-sized and maybe only he could sense promising outcomes.

A series of arrowed kicks caused anxiety in the visitors’ defence and then came a smart interception and race for the line. Keith Earls caught the playmaker but he stayed cool on the ground to pop up a pass to Sam Johnson. That score inspired the home side. They set up camp close to the Irish line. They fizzed the ball this way and that. Their handling was exemplary.

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The inventiveness to seek out daylight remarkable. This was Scotland playing like Scotland and it enraptured the crowd who tried to roar them over the line. But the Irish defence was heroic. The contest seemed to be won and lost here.

In the second half Ireland killed the errors and Scotland didn’t. Scotland missed Hogg more than Ireland missed Sexton.

There was expectancy in the stands when Hoggy’s replacement, Blair Kinghorn, got on the ball but nothing came off for last week’s hat-trick hero this time.

The stands groaned at the high number of infringements called against Scotland by French referee Romain Poite, with Laidlaw’s frustration showing at the end when he sighed: “I don’t think he likes us very much.”

Indeed there seemed a chance that the boos which rained down on the official could qualify for their own storm rating from the Met Office. But much of the damage to Scotland’s hopes was self-inflicted. The big screens explaining the stoppages were reading “knock on” with depressing regularity.

Scotland were never out of it but not really looking like they could get back into it.

The green machine had rediscovered much of its power. Enough for the backstop to hold.