The Six Nations Championship tends to yield tales of what might have been, and the Irish had mostly taken their last-gasp defeat to Wales here and the draw in France on the chin, until their head coach, Declan Kidney, last night reported a midweek conversation with the International Board referee manager, Paddy O'Brien, that suggested the penalty count in Paris ought to have been more in his side's favour. Whatever, they go now to England on St Patrick's Day (via the Cheltenham Festival – blimey, what a week) with legs weary after three matches in as many weeks but on a winning high. Scotland, beaten four times, are bound for Italy with the dreaded wooden spoon at stake.
The preserved heart of Laurence O'Toole, patron saint of Dublin, was stolen from the Christ Church Cathedral last weekend. Ireland may feel something similar has happened to their rugby team but they are fighting through. Deprived for the Championship of the operated-on Brian O'Driscoll, they suffered injuries in the last week to his stand-in as captain, Paul O'Connell, the flanker Sean O'Brien and the scrum-half Conor Murray. But each of their understudies – Rory Best as skipper, Peter O'Mahony, a lump of an openside from Cork, and Eoin Reddan – did their bit in an entertaining victory lapped up by a capacity crowd.
Both these sides are adept at picking up pace quickly but Ireland were much more direct, and why wouldn't they be with Tommy Bowe on the wing – though he failed by a tiny margin to maintain his record of scoring in each Championship match – and Rob Kearney in the thrilling form that made him the Lions' full-back in 2009. Scotland merely make a lot of passes very quickly and from side to side and are too often too easy to defend. They were lifted from the ordinary just the once, when the great gazelle of a lock Richie Gray ran 25 metres, brushing off Reddan and dummying Kearney for a try after 36 minutes that had Scotland trailing 17-14.
Who knows, this style may serve the Scots and their energetic and skilful back-rowers in the long run but will Andy Robinson be around to see it? It is thought the former England coach's old club Bath would like him back, possibly with Sir Ian McGeechan moving into a director's role.
"I wouldn't like to quantify it but it was a step back," Robinson said. "We didn't put more than three phases together and caused a lot of our own problems." Scotland's Six Nations record under him now reads two wins and a draw in 14 matches, and this was a sixth straight defeat in all games for the first time since 2004.
The Scots led 6-0 with penalties by Greig Laidlaw but they conceded three tries before half-time. Best decided to go for touch with a 13th-minute penalty and scored himself when Donnacha Ryan batted the line-out throw and O'Mahony on the peel fed his captain to blast past Mike Blair.
Jonny Sexton, the Ireland fly-half, can hack through the ball like a butcher cleaving a side of beef but if the trajectory is sometimes wonky, the majority go over. He converted Best's try, then kicked a penalty that Laidlaw responded to – a mystifying choice, ordered by Robinson, given that Scotland had the Irish on the rack with two line-outs in the 22 and a yellow card looming. Sexton kicked again for 17-9 when Reddan was heinously allowed to scramble to the line, having fumbled behind a ruck.
With a few seconds before the break, Scotland allowed Ireland to score again. Stephen Ferris secured a line-out and with Sexton's sizzling distribution, Andrew Trimble drove through a quartet of flapping blue jerseys for a 22-14 lead.
Ireland's scrum that served them well in Paris did so again and the savage precision of their piling into the breakdown weighed ever heavier on Scotland as time ticked on.
Bowe caught an inventive cross-kick by Sexton but Graeme Morrison got his body underneath the wing who was ruled to have made a double movement. Best was then among four Irishmen who were withdrawn in the third quarter, with weariness on Kidney's mind.
Ronan O'Gara came on to assume the captaincy and shift Sexton to centre – you wonder whether the latter likes that or lumps it? Just as Scotland tried to plot a final-quarter revival – Stuart Hogg, a try-scorer against France, was hardly seen going forward – there was a sickening hiatus. The Edinburgh wing Lee Jones leant into a clumsy tackle by Trimble, their heads clashed and Jones appeared knocked out before he hit the ground. The 23-year-old was taken to hospital as a precaution but with no spinal problem reported, thankfully.
Eventually, a maul offence brought the first points of the half, in the 72nd minute. Sexton hit the spot from wide out. And there was time for more. Kearney's breakout and Keith Earls' grubber was halted by a sly tug from Max Evans that earned the Scot a trip to the sin bin. But Fergus McFadden, on for Kearney, burrowed to the posts for Sexton to convert and the emphasis it gave the scoreline could not be quibbled with.
"England in Twickenham will be a force," said Kidney. "This was a performance in the right direction and as a coach that's what you want as a tournament goes on."
Ireland R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), K Earls (Munster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy (all Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan, D Ryan (both Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster), P O'Mahony (Munster). Replacements T Court (Ulster) for Healy, 50-58 & for Ross, 78; R O'Gara (Munster) for D'Arcy, 53; T O'Leary (Munster) for Reddan, 53; S Cronin (Leinster) for Best, 53; S Jennings (Leinster) for O'Mahony, 61; F McFadden (Leinster) for Kearney, 72; M McCarthy (Connacht) for O'Callaghan, 78.
Scotland S Hogg (Glasgow); L Jones (Edinburgh), M Evans (Castres), G Morrison (Glasgow), S Lamont (Scarlets); G Laidlaw, M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford (capt), G Cross (all Edinburgh), R Gray (Glasgow), J Hamilton (Gloucester), J Barclay (Glasgow), D Denton, R Rennie (both Edinburgh). Replacements E Murray (Newcastle) for Cross, 46; C Cusiter (Glasgow) for Blair, 49; R Jackson (Glasgow) for Laidlaw, 55; R Vernon (Sale) for Rennie, 58; A Kellock (Glasgow) forHamilton, 59; M Scott (Edinburgh) for Jones, 61.
Referee: C Pollock (New Zealand).
Tries: Best, Reddan, Trimble, McFadden
Cons: Sexton 3
Pens: Sexton 2
Pens: Laidlaw 3