Six Nations: Ireland fall to Scotland sucker punch

David Denton and Richie Gray celebrate after the final whistle at Murrayfield yesterday. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
David Denton and Richie Gray celebrate after the final whistle at Murrayfield yesterday. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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There are the Tales of the Unexpected and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not – and then there is this, an outcome so unlikely and a Test match so brutal that the whole breathless experience could be encapsulated by one look at Kelly Brown’s slightly dazed face.

On the pitch in the aftermath, Brown beamed through the blood, claret oozing out of his nose courtesy of a wounding clash with Rory Best’s bonce. The captain was like something that had crawled out of a car wreck, relieved as hell but not quite believing he’d survived.

This was a collision to beat all collisions, a savage and ugly Test match and, for Scotland, a comeback that will live long in the memory. What happened here should fool nobody, though. Delight, yes. Deceive, no. Scott Johnson’s team got away with it. They were the beneficiary of the most enormous favour from the visitors who could not have made so little out of so much possession had Mr Magoo directed operations at fly-half.

Scotland broke a 12-year horror show and have now won back-to-back championship matches at last. They have earned the right, therefore, to be considered in the context of the championship as opposed to their usual fight to avoid the wooden spoon. Mercy be. They’re heading in the right direction.

Wales next. An improving Wales. A Wales who, on Saturday, won their seventh Six Nations match of their last eight, who won their fourth successive away game in the championship for the first team since 1979. A Wales who went to France and won and didn’t concede a try, who are now beginning to look like a team that is regaining confidence and momentum after serious amounts of turbulence.

Would Scotland’s effort of yesterday be good enough to beat the Welsh? “No,” said Johnson. The coach was impressively candid. So was Brown. “Maybe we got a bit of luck,” said the captain. One of the best aspects of the day was that the man who won refused to overstate what happened. That’s progress. That’s a sign of a team with its head in the right place.

This was a joyous and madcap day for Scotland but the sense of realism hit home. Ireland loaded the gun and shot themselves in the foot, an Ireland shorn of nine players including four Lions and three Lions-elect. The Scots fell over the winning line against a depleted force that had a death wish. In celebrating the good things about the victory, we should take cognisance of the reality. Wales would have beaten Scotland yesterday. You’d put your money on it.

Ireland’s dominance in every category bar the only one that mattered was astonishing and for years to come they will be haunted by their demise. Later, we had Declan Kidney and Jamie Heaslip in the interview room. Normally when they come here they wear a winner’s smile, but their demeanours were altogether different now. Hangdog. Struggling to sum it up. A little in shock, perhaps. Kidney is in terrible danger of losing his job.

The visitors had 71 per cent possession and 77 per cent territory. They won the rucks and mauls by more than three to one and were required to make only a third of the number of tackles that Scotland were forced to make. The top three ball-carriers were all Irish: Sean O’Brien with 22, Luke Marshall with 14, Craig Gilroy with 11. Stuart Hogg was Scotland’s top carrier with a mere six. If you want to talk about metres made per player then the top three were again Irish – Keith Earls, Marshall and Rob Kearney. The only areas where Scotland’s numbers were higher came in the areas that proved how much pressure they were under. Brown, wonderful again when the heat came on, was the home side’s top tackler with 15; the Irish equivalent had to make just five.

Those were the key stats and you know what you can do with them; roll them into a ball and chuck them in a bin. There was talk of this being something of a miracle win, but it wasn’t. It was a stark example of a side battering an opponent and then losing the plot as that opponent refused to fall. Johnson drew an analogy with the “Rumble In The Jungle”, the storied meeting of Muhammad Ali and the pounding and ultra-dominant George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Foreman punched and punched and punched and couldn’t put Ali away. And then he got suckered. Ireland got suckered, too.

This game should have been over by the break. Ireland had line breaks and turnovers and all the ball they could have possibly wished for, but had none of the composure. Scotland escaped in the eighth minute when Sean Maitland pulled off a try-saving tackle on Brian O’Driscoll. They escaped again in the tenth minute when Marshall, blasting through the midfield for the second time, threw a forward pass to Gilroy when a flat ball would have brought the score. The third break came when Paddy Jackson missed the first of three kicks, the fourth when Keith Earls went sauntering through a gap and failed to execute.

Earls went for the outside when, inside him, O’Driscoll had ghosted in from nowhere and was running free. Had Earls looked in the great man’s direction it was try-time. At that point, Ryan Grant was in the bin and the possession stats read Ireland 89 per cent, Scotland 11 per cent. Ireland had carried 37 times, Scotland three times. It was the strangest kind of landslide we had seen for an age.

On the scoreboard, Scotland were hanging about because they were allowed to hang about. The only joy they were getting was from a fine scrum and a lineout that pressurised Ireland into three turnovers. Those were the crumbs of comfort. Those and the sight of the score at the break, which stood at 3-0. But even that bit of optimism was taken from them just after the restart when O’Brien went blasting through and put Ireland on such a front foot that they couldn’t mess it up. Gilroy scored, spinning out of a weak tackle from Ross Ford, and the noose tightened. Paddy Jackson missed the conversion and the noose loosened slightly.

When Scotland reached this point at Twickenham they needed somebody to do something to lift them out of their torpor. It never came. Nobody stepped up. Yesterday, somebody did and it was Dougie Hall, on for Ford, who made the move. Little things can change the momentum in games. A thundering hit can do the job. When Hall smashed into Kearney and won Scotland a penalty there was a discernible lifting of the spirit. That one howitzer from Hall would lead, soon after, to Scotland’s first meaningful visit to the Irish 22 and three points from Greig Laidlaw’s boot.

Ireland were running at 81 per cent at the time, but only five points separated them now. The impetus switched in these moments. Paddy Jackson missed another penalty. Geoff Cross did a number on Dave Kilcoyne in the scrum and Laidlaw kicked another penalty. A freebie.

Jim Hamilton hit hard and noised people up. Duncan Weir came on and boomed a clearing penalty a mile downfield. Scotland worked the field position and Laidlaw stole the points. This was rope-a-dope being played on a loop.

Amid the maelstrom, Kidney made his move. Paddy Jackson went off and Ronan O’Gara came on. Such a hubbub last week in Ireland when O’Gara wasn’t selected from the start, but there was good reason for that and we saw it soon enough. The penalty that took it to 12-8 was down to O’Gara’s befuddled mind. Lost in his own half, the colossus of the past hoofed a kick into no-man’s land and if he was to talk for an hour he wouldn’t be capable of explaining why he did it. Tim Visser jumped on it, hacked on and put Scotland back in Irish territory. Three more points ensued. Yet again, they got in and got out with a score. Inside Murrayfield, an air of incredulity gave way to waves of belief.

Ireland’s psychology was shot, but their downfall wasn’t complete. In the minutes that remained they regained possession and regained territory. Heaslip, Kilcoyne, Best and others took it to the Scotland line but got no further. In these minutes, the Scottish defence was immense.

It ended with an O’Gara pass that was fired high to Marshall, who knocked on. It was the pass and the performance of a faded star, a man out of time. If O’Gara is about to leave the international stage, the urge is to say that Scotland are about to enter it in a serious way for the first time in a dozen years. Too early, but hope remains.