Drew McNeil’s men ultimately fell short at Croke Park on Saturday but, if you are in the game of searching for positives, you won’t require a spy-glass. At times, Scotland’s ground play was alluring; the passing movement and rhythm was an advert for all that is good about the Gaelic game played on this side of the Irish Sea. Perhaps even more encouraging was the ground the Scots made up from last year’s humbling in Ennis, when people were left wondering if the Irish were now too far out of sight.
Thankfully, Saturday’s display in Dublin addressed that. Fears were unfounded. The critics were answered. Pride was restored. Belief had returned.
New questions will now be asked ahead of next Saturday’s grand finale in Inverness. Can Scotland still do the unthinkable and lift their first series trophy since 2008? Well, if you analyse Saturday, you would certainly say it’s in the melting pot.
Ireland did, if truth be told, threaten to bolt away again in an opening period that was tense and worrying for Scotland. The furrowed brows of coach McNeil and his assistant Kenny Ross said it all. The pockets of Scottish supporters were raising beads of forehead sweat on a day that was never warm.
Hurling is a devilishly fast sport and just raising the pace to cope is like being thrown into an ice bath with no clothes on. Scotland were barely in fight mode when the Irish were pinging in the goals and it is no mere coincidence that half of Ireland’s three pointers were scored as the Scots were trying to match the initial tempo.
First, Cahir Healy of Laois and then Graeme Mulcahy managed to sneak in front of the Scottish defence to score past Lovat’s Stuart MacDonald. Neil MacManus of Antrim then found the space between the posts – something he managed to do all afternoon- and Scotland were 7-0 behind in six minutes.
If Inverness is to be different, the Scots will be looking to start quicker. Mercifully, the adrenaline did kick in after this and the Scots enjoyed arguably their best spell of the afternoon. Finlay MacRae of Kinlochshiel will have felt he could have scored more over the piece but he was always in space, always probing and much of what Scotland mustered had his stamp across it.
After a few near things, the ball broke to Kilmallie’s Liam MacDonald and, with Brendan Rochford yards from his goal, MacDonald stroked the ball into the net for three points.
Scotland were off the mark and Kevin Bartlett added a two-point ground strike and respectability. When Finlay MacRae dived to net another three point goal, Scotland were in the lead.
After the good, came the bad. Scotland’s best spell was immediately followed by their biggest slump. MacManus added four point to his tally, Jack Kavanagh of Carlow helped himself to a goal and Eoin Price and Brendan Maher hit points over the uprights. Had Liam MacDonald not hit a point before the whistle, half-time could have been worse, with 17-9 the scoreline.
“The period before half-time was a poor spell,” said coach McNeil. “We let Ireland score too many points and we lost soft goals. Still, there were points when we dominated and we played some really good stuff.
“The boys showed what they can produce. The performance was as good as it has been in recent times.”
McNeil was, of course, also referring to the second half in which the Scots enjoyed greater possession and wielded greater threat. The cajoling and movement of Sean Nicolson and Finlay MacRae enabled Newtonmore debutants Glen and Fraser MacKintosh to link and stretch the Greens as space became apparent.
Kevin Bartlett, Nicolson and Finlay MacRae all netted double points from the ground, with Finlay’s brother John, Glen MacKintosh and Steven MacDonald all scoring single points.
Ireland chalked up the points over the bar methodically, to keep them in front, but their big engine had been slowed.
The proof of Scotland’s progress will now be put to the test in leg two. There is no doubt that, if the weather is kind and they can move the ball as deftly on the floor, Ireland may start to worry.