By Brendan Cole at the Aviva Stadium
A dominant scrum performance and a first half try-scoring blitz helped Ireland to their second victory of the RBS 6 Nations, with victory over Scotland at Aviva Stadium.
Ireland had already convincingly beaten Italy and this was a performance in the same vein though, as after the draw with France, the question of what might have been against Wales if Ireland had employed the aggressive defence they used at times here will nag.
If anything, Ireland began in similar style to the Welsh game, allowing Scotland easy yards down the wings and struggling to compete legally at the breakdown. They quickly went six points behind after ruck infringements were punished by the boot of Scotland out-half Greig Laidlaw.
But they worked their way back into things soon after. First, Stephen Ferris, who would defend superbly all day, executed a trademark ‘choke’ tackle to give Ireland a scrum. Mike Ross and Cian Healy looked more powerful from the first engagement and quickly forced a scrum penalty call in Ireland’s favour inside the Scottish half.
Despite an earlier lineout failure, new captain Rory Best’s first big decision was to decline the chance of points and kick for the corner. The Ulsterman was not finished there, calling a deceptive front of the lineout play that saw the ball delivered into his hands before burrowing over in the corner for the opening score. Peter O’Mahony, making his first championship start, betrayed no nerves when making the decisive pass and Sexton nailed the touchline conversion to put Ireland into a lead they would never relinquish.
Ferris also ended the next attack, another smash tackle followed by tidy work on the ground yielding a turnover. The scrum then gave Sexton the chance to extend the lead with another kick which he duly took.
Scotland responded, forcing the scrambling Best into touch yards from his own line after a Donnacha Ryan dropped ball in midfield was kicked over the Irish defence.
Indiscipline – or the inability to stop the Scots legally – led to an extended period of pressure which saw Ireland concede three penalties in quick succession. The last one of those saw Scotland opt for points, Laidlaw knocking over a penalty to again close the gap to one.
From the kick-off, Ireland got a penalty for offside, and this time Jamie Heaslip made the aggressive decision, opting to take a quick tap penalty from a kickable position in front of the Scottish posts.
That put Ireland on the front foot and they were soon close to the tryline, though Eoin Reddan was lucky to get over in the end as he looked set for dose of GBH when an Irish ruck spat the ball out behind him. But the Scottish defenders barged over the top of the scrum-half and he simply got up and scampered in for the score. Again from a wide spot out on the left, Sexton smacked over another conversion.
The impressive Richie Gray got his team back in the game by busting through Reddan before showing good skill to dummy Rob Kearney and bound over for a try. Frustratingly for the visitors, Laidlaw could only hit the post with the conversion.
The third Irish try followed soon after. Kearney’s tendency to hang onto the ball a second too long almost cost Ireland the chance, but a determined Andrew Trimble finished after a well-timed Ferris pass saved the full-back’s blushes. Sexton’s kick just missed from the wide wing, but Ireland went in with a healthy half-time lead.
Despite occasional issues at the breakdown, Ireland simply squeezed the life from the Scots in the second half, continuing to dominate the majority of the scrums. They also shot up much faster in the wide channels – taking away the easy yards down the touchlines that had yielded Scotland’s best attacking of the first period.
Ireland also showed some attacking verve, with Keith Earls providing an early highlight, streaking up the middle of the pitch to give Ireland an early platform in the Scottish 22. Tommy Bowe then had a chance to claim the single-season Six Nations try-scoring record, getting over the line after grabbing a cross-kicked Sexton penalty before winning a wrestling match with Graeme Morrison and getting the ball down, but the TMO decided the finish was a double movement.
The game became disjointed for a period thereafter, as a host of substitutes, penalties and errors robbed the game of momentum. Best’s departure just over ten minutes into the half is the most concerning ahead of the England match, while Gordon D’Arcy was again withdrawn for Ronan O’Gara with Sexton switching to inside centre. Reddan came off for Tomás O’Leary.
After an hour, Ireland’s increased aggression in defence indirectly led to a sickening clash of heads involving Trimble and Scottish wing Lee Jones after an hour. Jones looked to be knocked out cold after the incident and was replaced after a delay lasting several minutes.
Generally, Ireland were in control mode, and a superb maul set up the next period of pressure, but again a breakdown infringement saw Scotland granted relief.
The scrum delivered another penalty and from wide out on the left Sexton made no mistake with the kick to open an 11-point gap, and when Max Evans was yellow carded for tugging Earls’ arm as he chased a chip, the Scots knew the game was up with eight minutes left.
Ireland declined the penalty with Scotland down to 14. O’Gara, who assumed captaincy duties in Best’s absence, asked for the scrum, a final effort five metres from the Scottish line. A penalty try would have been a deserved reward for Ross and co, but the Scots just held the shove and Ireland moved the ball to the backs.
Their proficiency once in the opposition 22 has been a feature of the championship and that trend continued when another sub, Fergus McFadden, grabbed the ball from the back of a ruck and slammed it down by the post for a final converted try.