For 35 minutes of this contest yesterday, it was nil-nil desperandum. Not a single point was on the scoreboard. By the final whistle, it was nothing but full-blown desperandum for Ireland. Declan Kidney’s team produced a masterclass – if that is the right term – in how to dominate a match yet end up losing it. Ireland had 71 per cent of the possession and 77 per cent of the territory.
Fair play to the Scots. They hung in, dug deep and, with four penalties from Greig Laidlaw’s right boot, somehow managed to claw their way to the most unlikely of victories. Back-to-back winners in the Six Nations for the first time since 2001, Scotland stand third in the championship table, level on points with Wales, who visit Murrayfield on Saturday week.
Even the celebrating natives in the 67,006 crowd must have left wondering how on earth Scott Johnson’s underdogs are still in the hunt for the title. If the Irish squad departed with an inclination to kick themselves, they would have been ill advised to attempt to do so.
Paddy Jackson, their debutant outside half – a cherubic double for Eoin McLove, the young pop sensation in Father Ted – had a dreadful time with the boot, missing three of four place-kicks. The 21-year-old had been a surprise choice to stand in for Jonathan Sexton but, to kick salt into the wounds of an already injury-ravaged Irish side, the decisive moment came when Ronan O’Gara – the expected selection for the No 10 jersey – took the field as his replacement. In attempting a wildly over-ambitious chip in midfield, the veteran fly-half only succeeded in setting up the Scottish counter-attack that yielded Laidlaw’s clinching penalty.
Much was always going to hinge on the success or otherwise of the Irish 10-12 axis. Jackson and the similarly callow Luke Marshall were not exactly an untried combination, being provincial colleagues and having played together in the non-cap international against Fiji in November.
Still, on the occasion of their full international debuts, they could have done with a smooth, confident start and, in the first minute, Jackson spilled a pass from scrum-half Conor Murray. He proceeded to make some amends, feeding a slick pass to Marshall, who burst over the gain-line, in between two Scottish defenders, before throwing a long looping pass out to Keith Earls on the left wing.
The break came to nought, thanks to some fine scramble defence from the Scots, but the debutant duo followed up with another combination, Marshall taking a feed from Jackson on the scissors and cutting a big hole in the Scottish defence on the right. Sadly for the Irish, the centre’s pass out to Craig Gilroy was far from sharp – flung so far in a forward direction that the winger fumbled the ball to the floor.
Scotland were living off scraps and pinned on to the back foot, although Ryan Grant’s failure to retreat 10 metres when Murray ran a quick tap-penalty earned the loosehead prop a 10-minute stint in the sin-bin. Worryingly for Ireland, though, Jackson then made a mess of the ensuing penalty.
The visitors also made a mess of the golden chance they gleaned from a turnover on halfway. Earls scurried away into the left corner but, with Brian O’Driscoll screaming for an inside pass, the Munsterman found himself shunted into touch by Sean Maitland. Not until the 36th minute did the scoreboard get ticking, Jackson slotting a sitter of a penalty from a distance of 18 yards.
Having been starved of possession and territory for 40 minutes, Scotland found themselves with a chance to level the contest in first-half injury time but Stuart Hogg’s long-range penalty dropped just short of the posts. Parity would have been a good deal more than the Scots deserved and they reverted to back-foot starvation mode at the start of the second-half.
Within four minutes of the resumption, Ireland had a try on the board. Sean O’Brien did the initial damage with a trademark burst. Then, from a close-range ruck, Murray popped the ball out to Gilroy, who nimbly pirouetted past Ross Ford and over the whitewash.
An outbreak of handbags ensued, the Scot on the floor – notably the tattooed lock Jim Hamilton – seemingly taking exception to Gilroy’s raised-first celebration. It seemed a trivial matter but it was a sign of the spirit and fight that the home side, and their abrasive lock, summoned to retrieve a losing cause.
From 8-0 up, Ireland simply imploded. Jackson struck a post with his conversion attempt and hoofed another penalty haplessly wide. At the other end, Laidlaw was on the money with penalty after penalty, four in total. All of which added up to a defeat that could have painful implications for Kidney when it comes to post-championship reckoning time.