EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) It says much of Scottish expectations that beating Ireland 27-22 to sensationally open the Six Nations was no turn-up for them at Murrayfield on Saturday.
What was eye-opening was how Scotland led 21-8 by halftime, with three tries of verve and genius. Murrayfield was delirious.
Then it was silenced, as Ireland inevitably roared back in front by a point. But, crucially, the Irish missed chances to bury Scotland.
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For a change, the Scots buckled but didn’t break, and the scoreline kept their hopes alive. They focused on holding the ball, forcing penalties, and captain Greig Laidlaw kicked two of them over in the last seven minutes to give them a win they fully expected.
”We just don’t want to be getting beaten anymore, so it was so pleasing to get this over the line,” Laidlaw said.
This was their first opening win in 11 years.
And it was also the overdue signature win of the Vern Cotter era, just before he exits. Cotter took charge in 2014 and returns to France after this tournament. But the New Zealander has resuscitated Scotland so it no longer thinks of avoiding the wooden spoon. Having beaten the only team to topple the All Blacks last year, the Scots must believe they can finish in the top half, at least, of this Six Nations they have sent an electrical charge through.
”What was nice was stopping them scoring tries a meter from the line, total commitment, scramble defence, and then being able to get a grip on the game in the last 10 minutes,” Cotter said.
”This validates all the players’ work, and it changes the dynamic, to start the Six Nations with a win.”
The match started ominously for Scotland. The home side’s front row, all of whom were making their first Six Nations starts, were mangled in the first two scrums and conceded penalties. Scotland would ultimately be warned by referee Romain Poite that another collapse would lead to somebody being sin-binned.
Ireland wasted the penalties and the Scots struck: 10 phases took them to the try-line, and flyhalf Finn Russell threw a long pass which bounced into fullback Stuart Hogg’s hands. Irish center Garry Ringrose missed an intercept attempt, slipped, and Hogg had a clear path to the line.
Laidlaw converted that and Hogg’s next try. Center Huw Jones put Hogg into space behind Irish wing Keith Earls. Irish fullback Rob Kearney lined up Scotland wing Sean Maitland and Hogg was away clear again.
Ireland’s reply at the end of 19 phases was lucky. Simon Zebo’s miss-out pass slipped through Scotland wing Tommy Seymour’s hands and fell into Earls’ mitts, and he dived into the left corner.
Scotland was even quicker producing a response. At an attacking lineout, they set up for a driving maul by bringing in backs Seymour and Alex Dunbar. Ireland fell for it. The throw-in was to Dunbar, who was through the Irish and two steps from the try-line before the Irish woke up, too late.
Hogg almost had a third try but Kearney stopped him, and halftime came as a relief for Ireland. It dominated possession but was just shoveling the ball on, making easy targets for Scotland’s fast-up defense.
The Irish took a deep breath and started the new half energized. The passing was quicker, they flew into contact and, more importantly, they were running onto the ball. Scotland was sent into retreat and Ireland scored converted tries through lock Iain Henderson and flyhalf Paddy Jackson. Ireland led 22-21 with momentum and plenty of time left.
But Scotland’s defense, which would finish making 213 tackles, nearly 100 more than Ireland, finally closed down the tiring Irish. And having held only scraps of possession, Scotland turned the heat back on the visitors. Laidlaw kicked them back in front by two in the 73rd minute, and in the last minute, his second penalty delivered the coup de grace.
”The defeat is pretty tough to take, but it was always potentially a reality coming here,” Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said. ”We knew these guys had improved, Vern Cotter has done a great job with them. We fed their self-belief which was dangerous to do.”