It was nowhere near the depths of Cardiff but Scotland’s sorry away record in the Six Nations continued in Dublin yesterday as they were eventually beaten comfortably by superior Ireland side.
With a championship in sight and several years’ experience of challenging at the business end of the competition, the Irish pulled away to a 20-point victory which ended any hopes of a Scottish title charge.
The Scots will look back with frustration at a number of opportunities squandered, with poor passing in two-on-ones contributing heavily to a failure to cash in on what was, in many areas, a competitive display from the visitors.
Ireland were knocked out of their stride for periods of the game but were far more ruthless, devouring all of the opportunities that came their way in stark contrast to the opposition.
Two tries from wing Jacob Stockdale carved out a 14-3 lead for the home side, which always looked like a solid platform to push on for the win and so it proved. Conor Murray and Sean Cronin added another couple in the second half, with Johnny Sexton converting all four.
Scotland’s consolation came in the form of a fine finish by Blair Kinghorn, on his first Test start, but other chances failed to stick and the match slipped away.
After a nervy first ten minutes with errors from both sides it looked like Ireland were beginning to get a grip on proceedings, building phases and bombing the Scottish 22 with high balls.
But the visitors dug in and got the first points on the board when Laidlaw stroked over a routine penalty in the 13th minute.
Scotland continued to play their positive brand of rugby, looking to harry the Irish out of the routine they so often are able to establish at a home stadium which has been practically impregnable in recent years.
The victory over England two weeks’ previously had been built on a blisteringly accurate first 40 minutes and it was always felt that something similar would be required here in Dublin.
The frenetic pace saw the error count continue to mount and Ryan Wilson departed with a head injury, replaced by David Denton. The Scots forced their hosts into some uncharacteristic sloppiness but it was two critical errors from the away centres which turned the game in a direction which ultimately proved irreversible.
Huw Jones proved he is human after all as he failed to find Stuart Hogg with what looked to be a routine scoring pass from the centre, who has barely put a foot wrong in a Scotland jersey this season.
Then Peter Horne was severely punished for an ambitious wide pass out to the right midway in the Irish half. Finn Russell had got away with something similar against England from inside his own 22 but this time Stockdale picked it off and, from the moment it drifted into the speedy wing’s hands, it was a seven-pointer.
Scotland continued to compete, the lineout descended into a bit of a lottery but the developing stats were telling the story that Ireland had slowly established a stranglehold.
Murray and Sexton almost combined to break through the middle of the Scottish defence and, as the interval approached, they began to scent the opportunity for a second try which would have them firmly in the driver’s seat.
A sustained push on the Scotland line was launched and Murray looked like he was going to get over but was held at bay by desperate defending. The ball moved right before coming back the way and Stockdale had enough space to break the tackle of Kinghorn, who had not long returned from a head injury assessment to get over in the corner and become the first Irish player to score six tries in a Six Nations campaign. Sexton added his second conversion
The Fields of Athenry rang around the stadium as the second half got under way and the Irish crowd sensed that the game was one score away from being decided in their favour.
They didn’t have to wait long as the Scots were driven back early on and Murray scrambled over from short range, Sexton converted and it was now a mountainous 18-point lead.
An immediate Scottish response was needed and looked to be on when Hogg broke through. However, after being denied by a poor pass in the first half, this time the full-back erred as he went long for Kinghorn inside of popping to the man inside.
Amends were made in the 51st minute as Kinghorn showed superb finishing instinct to leap over in the right corner and get the ball down for a well taken try, but Laidlaw clipped the crossbar with his failed conversion attempt.
After Sexton dragged a kickable penalty wide the next award in the Scotland 22 was kicked to the corner, to the approval of the home crowd, as Ireland sought the bonus-point try needed to heap the pressure on England in Paris.
The resulting maul was roared to the rafters and the Scottish defence was powerless to prevent sub hooker Cronin from crashing over. Sexton’s conversion opened a 20-point chasm and the writing was on the wall. A Tim Swinson knock on close to the line in the closing minutes denied Scotland the chance to give the scoreline a fairer complexion.