It was a disappointing start to the 2014 RBS 6 Nations Championship for Scotland in Dublin today as Ireland ran in three unanswered tries as recompense for the savvy which characterised their display.
Scotland coach Scott Johnson was left to reflect on inconsistencies in attack and a penalty count which went against his team, which meant that the hard yards his side accomplished were neither embellished nor rewarded in the manner of their hosts.
The lineout, a source of sentinel pride for Scotland in the recent past coughed up ball at crucial times today and Johnson’s reference to “going to dark places and maybe bring some torches” suggests that the team’s debrief, will, as is the norm, be heavy on honesty.
“What hit us was losing the try going in at half-time. There was a naivety about some of our play today. We had more attacks in their 22 than they had in ours but as I’ve said before we need to find consistency,” he lamented.
The ability to build scoreboard pressure is one Johnson’s mantras but in spite of the promptings which hinted Scotland could do that, it just didn’t materialise.
Instead, Ireland with a welter of experience behind the scrum, capitalised on territory and, at a key point Scottish largesse when a close-range lineout mis-fired as half-time loomed.
Whether it was anything to do with the absence of their talismanic lock, Paul O’Connell, who was a late withdrawal due to a chest infection, Ireland’s start wasn’t the whirlwind that had been the talk of Grafton Street since their epic encounter against New Zealand in the autumn.
Scotland, indeed, had the first chance of points but Greig Laidlaw saw a penalty from the 10-metre line strike the left upright for Ireland to clear as early as the fourth minute.
Jonny Sexton (12 minutes) and Laidlaw (18 minutes) did land penalties and a second strike from Sexton on 22 minutes gave Ireland a 6-3 lead.
It was at this juncture that Scotland played some of their most inventive rugby. David Denton was derailed close to the Irish line by four green jerseys as the No 8 sought to explode off a scrum.
Scotland lost Sean Maitland (concussion and an ankle injury which saw him in an immobilising boot) around the half-hour and it took some defensive heroics from his replacement, Max Evans, to deny Heaslip a try, a foot in touch duly confirmed by the TMO.
However, Scotland lost the lineout and Ireland ultimately worked ball right for Andrew Trimble to dot down. Sexton missed the conversion but a score at such a crucial moment was a dagger in Scots’ hopes.
From 3-11 at half-time, Scotland began the second period brightly. Jim Hamilton’s lineout provision triggered a rolling maul and an Irish infringement saw Laidlaw pop over his second penalty.
If 6-11 was a potential platform for a Scottish fight back, nobody told the Irish pack. They won a scrum against the head and then opted for a penalty to touch to drive over the Scottish line for Heaslip to be credited with the try. Sexton’s conversion took it to 18-6.
Stuart Hogg sought to escape the shackles of the home defence and there were glimpses of his threat, while, in the final quarter, it was encouraging, too, to see Matt Scott return to action for the first time since Scotland’s viagogo Autumn Test victory against Japan.
But it was Ireland who put the game to bed through Sexton’s third penalty and then his conversion of Rob Kearney’s 71st minute try.
Much attention will focus now on the tight six day turnaround to the Calcutta Cup clash against England at Murrayfield on Saturday.
England, smarting from the last-gasp defeat at the Stade de France on Saturday, have, of course, one extra day of recovery but Scotland will be determined to use every available moment to kick-start their Six Nations fortunes.
Ireland: Rob Kearney; Andrew Trimble, Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Marshall, Andrew Trimble; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Dan Tuohy, Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry, Jamie Heaslip captain. Subs (all used): Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Ian Henderson, Tommy O’Donnell, Isaac Boss, Paddy Jackson and Fergus McFadden.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg; Sean Maitland, Alex Dunbar (all Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Sean Lamont; Duncan Weir (both Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Edinburgh Rugby); Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors), Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby), Moray Low, Tim Swinson (both Glasgow Warriors), Jim Hamilton (Montpellier), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors), Kelly Brown (Saracens) CAPTAIN, David Denton (Edinburgh Rugby).
Subs: Max Evans (Castres) for Maitland (31 mins), Alasdair Dickinson (Edinburgh Rugby) for Grant (52 mins), Johnnie Beattie (Montpellier) for Brown and Richie Gray (Castres) for Hamilton (both 56 mins), Matt Scott (Edinburgh Rugby) for Taylor (64 mins), Geoff Cross (Edinburgh Rugby) for Low (65 mins), Pat MacArthur (Glasgow Warriors) for Ford (67 mins) and Chris Cusiter for Laidlaw (73 mins).
Attendance (estimated): 51,000
RBS Man of the Match: Jamie Heaslip (Ireland).