Scotland will have mixed emotions after this loss to the second best side in world rugby because there wasn’t much to choose between the two teams on the day.
Ireland took their chances, Scotland made too many mistakes and didn’t. It was pretty much that simple. One interception try was a miserable return for all of Scotland’s possession and their set piece creaked alarmingly.
The Scots did a pretty good job of stopping Ireland’s big beasts in defence but that proved less important on the day. The visitors like to play “keep-ball” and run through the phases but all three of Ireland’s tries were not so much created as magicked out of thin air – tatah! – from nothing very much. The opener was a direct result of one of Scotland’s many handling mistakes, the other two were down to simple missed tackles. This game can be cruel.
The Scots will see this as an opportunity lost while Ireland will just have been relieved to have avoided another pratfall. The visitors have work to do, looking nothing like the Kiwi conquerors of the autumn.
Both sides lost key players in the first half. Stuart Hogg was caught late by Peter O’Mahony and left the field after 16 minutes. If that looked a questionable hit the same can be said for some of the treatment meted out to Johnny Sexton who was caught by Allan Dell a split second after making a scoring pass to Jacob Stockdale. Sexton played on only to leave the field after 23 minutes and failed an head injury assessment.
Jamie Ritchie was the pick of the Scots, busy in defence and notable for securing several turnovers at the breakdown against some illustrious opposition. He looks more at home in the seven jersey every time he wears it.
Stuart McInally also had a highly effective game with the possible exception of Stockdale’s try where he might have intervened to stop it at source but it was a low key return for Jonny Gray. Just ahead of the half-time break the Scots had a long period of possession, hammering at the Irish door and they needed some reward for all their efforts. It was a key passage of play and it came to an end when Gray knocked on. The big fella also coughed up a couple of cheap penalties.
After Greig Laidlaw opened with a Scotland penalty, Ireland’s first two tries came against the run of play. The first try went to Conor Murray but only after the Scottish wings got their wires crossed. Jacob Stockdale got the ball on the Irish left wing and kicked ahead more in hope than expectation. Tommy Seymour won the race for the ball and passed it to Sean Maitland who was covering with Hogg nursing that shoulder.
It wasn’t the best pass in the world and the closing speed of the two players contributed to the handling error. Murray had the simplest job to collect the bouncing ball and dab it down.
Just six minutes later Ireland had their second when a simple inside pass from Sexton carved the Scots wide open with McInally clutching at thin air as Stockdale raced past him to score from 45 yards out.
It was almost the last thing Sexton did as the fly-half, targeted all game by the Scottish back row, finally took one blow too many and left the field to be replaced by Joey Carbery.
It proved an important switch for any number of reasons; the main one being the interception pass that the young Munster ten had plucked out of the Murrayfield air by Russell just five minutes after he joined the fray.
Russell was hunted down by Keith Earls and tackled just a metre short of the Irish line but the Scotland playmaker did brilliantly well to pop the ball up to the supporting Sam Johnson for the Aussie centre to claim his first Test try.
That score, with Laidlaw doing his stuff off the tee, got the Scots back into this a match that had been in danger of running away from them.
If Scotland bossed the opening half, Ireland found their rhythm after the break, dominating possession and territory. Blair Kinghorn had already done sterling work in defence when hunting down Rob Kearney and he had to do the same when Carbery broke through a couple of soft tackles by Dell and Rob Harley. Kinghorn nailed his man but not before Carbery’s long pass sent Earls over the Scottish line for Ireland’s third try of the afternoon.
Ireland’s nine-point advantage was whittled down by three when Laidlaw kicked his second penalty, following a brilliant turnover from Ritchie, only to see Carbery get them back almost immediately. With their nine-point cushion restored, Ireland slowed the tempo and walked down the clock.