Four down, then. Just the one to go. But the penultimate hurdle in Ireland's Grand Slam quest proved to be far from a formality in the west end of Edinburgh yesterday evening.
If Brian O'Driscoll and his team-mates expected to clear it with the ease of a Fanny Blankers-Koen, they were rudely awoken in a first half that left them fortunate to be hanging on to Scotland's coat-tails. But with lashings of character and not a little quality the boys in emerald green pulled through. If they get past Wales in Cardiff next Saturday they will be celebrating their country's first Grand Slam since their only one, in 1948, the year Blankers-Koen, "the flying Dutchwoman", won four gold medals at the last London Olympics.
It was a member of Irish rugby's golden generation who was largely responsible for keeping the dream alive. Like a blast from the past, the scrum-half Peter Stringer burst clear from the back of a line-out to feed Jamie Heaslip for the try that put Ireland in front for the first time, 11 minutes into the second-half. That they stayed there was also due to a 17-point contribution from Stringer's long-time Munster half-back partner. Ronan O'Gara kicked four penalties, a conversion and a drop goal, in the process easing past Jonny Wilkinson as the record Six Nations points-scorer.
All of which left the old stagers, and the younger ones, on course for Irish rugby's equivalent of the holy grail. Not that the words "grand" or "slam" were on the lips of Declan Kidney, Ireland's head coach. When they were added together and the prospect of a clean sweep put to him, the former maths teacher said: "I wouldn't know anything about that. We just managed to win the game today. We've another game next week. Let's see what happens. To play Wales in Wales is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do."
It was always going to be a momentous occasion yesterday, with the prop John Hayes running out for a 93rd cap, passing the record he shared with Malcolm O'Kelly. The Scots, however, looked more assured from the off, Simon Danielli almost getting through on the overlap in the second minute. Tommy Bowe saved the day for Ireland, and not for the last time.
Scotland spent most of the first half on the front foot and the pressure told in the form of Irish indiscipline. Four penalties came Chris Paterson's way in the first 40 minutes and all of them were converted by the Edinburgh full-back's deadly right boot. Ireland struggled to build any attacking momentum but three O'Gara penalties kept them in touch, the second one taking the 32-year-old past Wilkinson's championship points tally.
It was 12-9 to Scotland at the interval, but – as Frank Hadden, their head coach, was quick to lament afterwards – the gap ought to have been greater. The Scots cut loose with a vengeance in first-half overtime, spinning the ball out, in their own half, to Thom Evans on the left. Twice an English schools' sprint finalist, the Glasgow wing has no shortage of gas and he put on the after-burners in a chip and chase. He managed to elude the lunging arms of O'Gara but not quite the clutches of Bowe. Still Scotland might have scored, but with the supporting Phil Godman snaffling the loose ball O'Driscoll played his usual captain's innings, stopping the fly-half with what proved to be a vital last-ditch tackle.
It was a close shave, but having survived it Ireland proceeded to put the game in the bag. Scotland were wedged firmly on the back foot before the pivotal breakthrough came, in the 51st minute. It was forged by Stringer, the nippy little No 9 catching the home guard napping with a break from a line-out on the left. A lovely inside pass to Heaslip led to a try by the replacement back rower and Ireland were ahead for the first time.
O'Gara converted and then landed a drop goal, stretching the lead to 19-12. Paterson chipped into it with yet another penalty but it was the Irish who had the final say. With a swish of his trusty right boot, O'Gara kicked his fourth penalty and removed any lingering doubt about Ireland heading to Cardiff for a date with destiny.
Scotland: C Paterson; S Danielli, M Evans, G Morrison (N De Luca, 70), T Evans; P Godman, M Blair (capt; C Cusiter, 51); A Dickinson, R Ford (D Hall, 57), E Murray, J Hamilton, J White (N Hines, 50), A Strokosch, S Taylor, J Barclay (S Gray, 67).
Ireland: R Kearney (G Murphy, 75); T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; R O'Gara, P Stringer (T O'Leary, 65); M Horan, R Best (J Flannery, 61), J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Ferris, D Leamy (J Heaslip, 30), D Wallace.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).