We have suspected for some time that this Scotland side was fast improving and now we have forensic evidence in the form of yesterday’s rollercoaster display which ended in a rare victory over the team that put 40 points past New Zealand not three months ago. It was only the second time that Scotland have won their opening match in the Six Nations, the last occasion coming 11 years ago.
After a poor first-half display, Ireland stormed back into this match and led by one point in the final ten minutes when Paddy Jackson, who had nudged his team ahead, was pinged for not rolling at a ruck. Greig Laidlaw, pictured below, pointed at the posts and the scrum-half sent the ball sailing through them to regain the advantage that Scotland never relinquished. The final act of the match, Laidlaw’s second penalty, extended the lead.
This was a topsy turvy encounter. Scotland raced into a 21-5 lead in the opening half hour, scoring three tries in a brilliant display of attacking rugby, only to watch on helplessly as Ireland bounced back with 17 unanswered points.
The momentum of the match appeared to have shifted in the visitors’ favour in that third quarter but the Scots called upon deep reserves of resilience and determination, fed by countless disappointments, to wrestle back both the initiative and the lead and finish the dominant team.
Scotland’s early attacking verve will have every other defence coach burning the midnight oil but their wayward set piece will have the French in particular licking their lips in anticipation. Scotland’s set scrum conceded three penalties in the first half alone, two lineouts went astray and the restarts were an unholy mess.
Everyone in blue put in a shift but special credit goes to winger Sean Maitland, who made two crucial interventions in the final quarter, intercepting Jamie Heaslip’s scoring pass to Robbie Henshaw before knocking Rob Kearney into touch before the Irish full-back got his scoring pass away to Keith Earls.
The Gray brothers did a mountain of work – Jonny making a record number of 28 tackles – Finn Russell took the ball to the line, John Barclay made a impact when he appeared off the bench and every forward punched above their weight in defence. Huw Jones patrolled the wider channels efficiently although his centre partner Alex Dunbar had a mixed game, scoring a try but less effective in defence.
The match was just eight minutes old when Scotland opened the scoring and it came directly from Earls’ fluffed clearance kick, which gifted the home side an attacking lineout.
The ball was won and the Scots pounded away at the Irish defence for several phases before spreading the ball wide. Debutant Garry Ringrose jumped out the line and missed Hogg but Scotland had a two-man overlap and there was little he could have done to stop the Scotland full-back from pirouetting neatly to collect the bouncing ball before diving over the Irish line.
Twelve minutes later Hogg grabbed his second. Scotland were finding space in the wide channels, Jones held Earls’ drift for a split second before feeding Hogg who dummied Kearney before holding on to the ball himself and showing everyone a clean pair of heels to the line.
The Irish winger made amends of a sort when he finished off a flowing movement to dive over in the corner to open Ireland’s account but the Scots weren’t finished. In one of the more bizarre training field moves anyone has witnessed at Murrayfield, centre Dunbar stood in an attacking five-metre lineout which Scotland earned thanks to a clever kick from Russell. The Irish forwards chose not to mark the Scottish back and replacement hooker Ross Ford, on for Fraser Brown’s bloody nose, picked him out expertly for Dunbar to drive over from short range.
Trailing 21-8 at the break – Jackson kicked a long penalty late in the first half – Ireland were down but far from out and they worked themselves right back into contention with Iain Henderson’s 47th-minute try, the long lock picking and driving through Duncan Weir, a mismatch if ever there was one, with Russell off the field for a head injury assessment.
The momentum had swung a full 180 degrees with the wind now filling Ireland’s sails. All the action was taking place deep inside the Scotland half so it was no great surprise when Ireland scored their third try of the afternoon, Jackson picking a superb out-to-in line that neatly dissected Dunbar and replacement Mark Bennett in more ways that one.
The stand-off’s conversion of his own score gave Ireland a slender one-point lead with most of the final quarter still to play but Laidlaw’s twin penalties on 73 and 80 minutes dragged his team over the finish line for a famous victory.