Ireland bounced back from their painful home defeat to England as they got their Guinness Six Nations title defence back on track with a much-needed victory at Murrayfield.
Despite playing below their best, Ireland’s response from their 32-20 bullying by the English in Dublin was an encouraging step forward as they got the better of an improving Scotland side. Outscoring their hosts by three tries to one with Conor Murray and Jacob Stockdale striking in the first half and Keith Earls after the interval in response to Sam Johnson’s 28th score for the home side, Ireland also dealt with an early loss of fly-half Johnny Sexton to get their first points of the 2019 championship.
Plenty had rested on the outcome of this game, for Scotland the opportunity to make a big statement that under Gregor Townsend they are a force to be reckoned with after so many false dawns and setbacks. For Ireland this was the chance to draw a line under the poor performance of seven days prior when they were bullied by England on their home turf. While for both teams, the victor could lay down a massive marker ahead of their meeting in Yokohama, Japan on September 22, their opening pool game of the 2019 World Cup.
Lose, however, and there was a long way back for Townsend and Schmidt and both head coaches had turned to more experience to achieve their goals. Ireland, having lost Robbie Henshaw to injury in addition to Devin Toner, CJ Stander and Garry Ringrose in that bruising England defeat, recalled Rob Kearney to add some stability in the backfield full-back while Sean O’Brien was included at openside flanker in a tactical selection as Josh van der Flier dropped to the bench. Also into the pack came Quinn Roux for Toner, while Chris Farrell was Ringrose’s replacement at outside centre.
The most notable change for Scotland was on the wings, where Blair Kinghorn’s hat-trick in the bonus-point victory over Italy last week did not save him from demotion to the bench as Townsend brought in Saracens’ more experienced Sean Maitland for an all-Lions back three alongside full-back Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour.
Ireland had been caught napping by England last Saturday and they again started slowly against the Scots, conceding a penalty rather than the try they conceded inside two minutes to the English. Greig Laidlaw kicked his side ahead on six minutes as Ireland looked edgy and were penalised at a maul.
Schmidt’s side was also hampered by an early knock to fly-half Johnny Sexton who looked troubled by a leg problem and received treatment repeatedly during the opening 20 minutes.
Yet for all Ireland’s woes they managed to take the lead, thanks to a defensive mix-up in the Scottish backfield, Jacob Stockdale received the ball on the left wing on 10 minutes and chipped ahead. His chase was blocked but Chris Farrell picked up the baton, his huge presence pressurising Scotland’s Tommy Seymour as he collected on the bounce but hurried his pass to fellow wing Sean Maitland, who could not field the ball coming at him high and hard. When it slipped from his one-handed grasp, Conor Murray pounced and raced past the uprights for the opening try. Sexton got off the deck after more treatment and took the conversion but the attempt, normally meat and drink to the World Player of the Year, was wide of the posts, much to the glee of the Scottish supporters.
Their mirth was short-lived, though, as Stockdale struck for his first try of 2019, off a slick move started by a reverse pass to Sexton from Peter O’Mahony. Running a great line off Sexton’s shoulder, Stockdale cut inside his marker and raced under the posts, Murray adding the simple conversion with Sexton receiving yet more treatment. That give Ireland a 12-3 lead on 16 minutes despite them playing with little fluency or accuracy.
Scotland then lost Hogg to a shoulder injury, replaced by Kinghorn, and Sexton was eventually called ashore on 23 minutes, albeit for a blood injury. He was replaced by Joey Carbery, who quickly caught the sloppiness bug, his pass in midfield cut out by opposite number Finn Russell. The Scotland fly-half broke to five metres from the Irish line before he was hauled down by Keith Earls but the Racing 92 playmaker stayed cool under pressure in contact to pop the ball perfectly into the path of rookie centre Sam Johnson, who grabbed his first Test try, converted by captain Laidlaw to cut Ireland’s lead to two points at 12-10.
It stayed that way into the interval and for 15 minutes into the second half.
And what a way to break the deadlock, Carbery atoning for his earlier intercept by breaking through traffic on halfway and carrying into the 22 from where he unleashed a superb long pass out wide to right wing Earls, who had a free run over the tryline.
Carbery added the conversion and six minutes later cancelled out a Laidlaw penalty with his own three-pointer as Ireland enter the final 10 minutes with a nine-point lead at 22-13. A try bonus point was not out of the realms of possibility but though it did not come, Ireland played out those final 10 minutes in relative comfort and will welcome the fallow week in the championship before heading to Rome to face Italy on February 24.
S Hogg (B Kinghorn, 16); T Seymour, H Jones, S Johnson (P Horne, 69), S Maitland; F Russell, G Laidlaw - captain (A Price, 69); A Dell (J Bhatti, 69), S McInally (F Brown, 65), S Berghan (D Rae, 69); G Gilchrist, J Gray; R Wilson (R Harley, h-t), J Ritchie (R Harley, 35-40), J Strauss.
Replacement not used: P Horne
R Kearney; K Earls, C Farrell, B Aki, J Stockdale (J Larmour, 71); J Sexton (J Carbery, 23), C Murray (J Cooney, 77); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 56), R Best - captain (S Cronin, 71), T Furlong (A Porter, 68); J Ryan, Q Roux (U Dillane, 68); P O’Mahony, S O’Brien (J van der Flier, 65), J Conan.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)