Scotland's shining stars show they have the X-Factor
And just two years ago, the last time Ireland came calling, the Scots were hammered to the point of embarrassment as the visitors, on a try chase, grabbed the championship, leaving the whitewashed hosts with the wooden spoon.
But, as ever, the great rugby-supporting constituency of Scotland put one stout shoe in front of the other, headed up and over Ravelston or out past Haymarket and murmured to each other: “This time, this time.”
The best dark blue team since the championship winners of 1999. Game-changers coming out of our cauliflower ears. One of the reasons why this was going to be an open, competitive, exciting tournament. Heck, some were even predicting we could win it.
Kind words filled the air of a crisp, bright day. Rory Best, the Ireland captain, said his team would have to reproduce their All Blacks-whipping form to overcome the Scots. You big, bluff, blarney-ish flatterer, you.
First things first, though. Let’s win this game. Let’s win our first opening game since 2006. Let’s score three first-half tries, by turns cheeky and thrilling.
The X-factor is much mentioned. Nothing to do with mewling mall-rats assessed by a high-waisted karaoke potentate for Saturday night entertainment, this is the something-special that star rugby men can bring to Saturday afternoons. Finn Russell has the X-factor, so does Stuart Hogg, and they combined for the opening score.
A long Russell pass wasn’t quite long enough to find Hogg’s hands, but the full-back read the bounce and gathered and crossed as Garry Ringrose made a despairing effort to intercept.
Ireland have X-factor guys of their own and the visitors got back up the park right away, Scotland doing well to withstand the pressure. Then came Hogg’s second try. On the other side of the pitch he joined the line and sold a glorious dummy to Rob Kearney, one of his rivals for the No.15 shirt for the Lions in New Zealand this summer, and as the Irishman clattered into the stooge on the wing, Sean Maitland, Hoggy zipped home to the delight, but maybe still the disbelief, of the home support.
Again Ireland came straight back at Scotland and this time they scored a try in the corner through Keith Earls, but Scotland had a response to that, Alex Dunbar joining the line-out and taking a flat delivery to plunge over. Then, right on half-time, Hogg almost completed his own stupendous hat-trick of tries only for Kearney to keep a close eye on him this time and make a thundering block.
Ireland had been many people’s pre-tournament tips for the main prize and you imagine coach Joe Schmidt had some choice words for the team at the interval. Whatever he said, the Irish walloped into the second half, pinning the Scots right back and keeping them there until they’d extracted some scores.
A Hogg break-out gave the hard-pressed Scottish defence some respite and at last Russell was seeing the ball again. His playmaker jiggery-pokery is always inventive, sometimes Meadowlark Lemon-ish and now and again exceedingly high-risk, and when Conor Murray quickly gathered up his little dinked kick Scotland looked to be in trouble. But Ireland faffed and Maitland was in the right place to make an interception of his own.
The winger was even more heroic minutes later when he halted Kearney close to the line, the video ref confirming a boot was in touch. But Ireland couldn’t be kept out. They had the momentum and the pressure they exerted was ferocious. Scotland were buckling and this was probably what Scotland coach Vern Cotter meant when he described the Six Nations as “intense, brutal, feudal”. Eventually, urged on by their big contingent in the stands, the Irish tries came – first through Iain Henderson and then Paddy Jackson, who converted his score to put Ireland ahead for the first time.
It seemed like the game had turned. Starved of the ball for much of the third quarter Scotland were being asked to go out and find it in the fourth, and somehow find new reserves of energy as well. And somehow they did. Vivaciousness and verve had been replaced by grit and guts with the Grays, Richie and Jonny, getting through a power of work in the engine-room. Then the sparkling Hogg spied another opportunity. He dragged Scotland back up the field and there they stayed, urged on by lusty roars, until Greig Laidlaw arrowed the winning penalties to complete a faultless kicking display.
Before this game, an English-based newspaper seemed to momentarily forget it’s supposed to be in the middle of a big sales push north of the Border when it spoke of the “fun to be had” in trying to guess how few Scots would be chosen for the Lions. After 80 pulsating minutes of course nothing was decided. No places were awarded and won’t be until the conclusion of the Six Nations. But how many in dark blue advanced their case for inclusion even ever so slightly? Was is three, four or maybe five?
We can have this debate later. This was a famous win deserving of its own headlines.