AFTER the exhilaration of the five-try win over Italy, this game came, as encounters with Ireland so often do, as a reality check for Scotland.
On another day they might have emerged with a bonus point, but there was no denying they lost out to a smarter, more experienced side, albeit one that was some way below its best.
It was a close contest for much of the 80 minutes, but the moments that mattered went Ireland’s way.
Their three tries to Scotland’s one was an indication of their superior cutting edge and, although they made an unusually high number of handling errors, those mistakes were less damaging than the errors from their opponents.
The mix-up between Tommy Seymour and Sean Maitland that produced the try for Conor Murray was by some way the most glaring error by the home team, but there was also a general vulnerability in defence – particularly close to the ruck – that Ireland exploited ruthlessly. Scotland, on the other hand, created less. And if that was in part because they were up against a more streetwise defence, it was also because they lacked ingenuity when it mattered most. Finn Russell showed how well he can read a game when he made the interception that led to Sam Johnson’s score. But that was a rare moment of inspiration.
Storm Erik, which it had been feared would ruin the game as a spectacle, had died down considerably by kick-off time, and the mild wind combined with the dry conditions to allow both sides to play a lot of running rugby.
Greig Laidlaw opened the scoring with a penalty from in front of the posts after Bundee Aki had used his hands in the ruck, but Ireland then took command of the game with two tries in the 10 minutes that followed.
The first really began when Stuart Hogg was taken out as he was chasing his own chip and, with referee Romain Poite deciding there had been no offence, Ireland quickly countered.
From midfield the play went left, where Jacob Stockdale kicked ahead. Seymour gathered, but overthrew his pass inside to Maitland, who fumbled, allowing Murray to run on, gather and score.
Johnny Sexton’s failure to convert was a small consolation for the major mishap, but Ireland soon stretched their lead.
This time the move was more down to Irish ingenuity, with an apparently simple play in midfield being transformed by Sexton’s sleight of hand. The attack had been drifting right, but the stand-off switched left with a pop pass to Stockdale, who brushed past a lunge by Stuart McInally then sprinted clear through the middle to touch down behind the posts and give Murray a simple conversion.
Hogg, who appeared to have damaged a shoulder in being tackled, had been replaced by Kinghorn a minute before that score, and Sexton soon followed him.
Substitute Joey Carbery was quickly involved in the game, but not in the way he wanted. His pass intended for Aki was picked off by Russell, who raced 40 metres almost to within touching distance of the goal line before being hauled down by Keith Earls. The winger’s low tackle left Russell’s hands free to pop up a pass for Johnson, whose score in the right corner was converted by Laidlaw.
In what remained of the first half Scotland battered the Irish line with a series of drives, but the closest they came was when Seymour was hauled down a couple of metres short.
They then had to withstand a lot of solid pressure in the opening stages of the second half, and they did so superbly, with a crunching tackle by McInally on Earls marking an end to that phase of the game.
Eventually, though, after a period in which the home side pressed without really looking like scoring, Ireland stretched their lead back to nine points. The Stockdale try had shown Scotland were vulnerable close to the ruck, and Carbery demonstrated that again by breaking through the middle of Harley and Allan Dell.
The substitute’s pass to Earls looked as if it could have been forward, but the winger touched down, Carbery added the conversion and Ireland were back in the driving seat.
Just inside the final quarter, Ireland handled on the ground again, and Laidlaw gave Scotland a glimmer of hope with the penalty. But the deficit went back to nine with 12 minutes left when Carbery knocked over another penalty, awarded after Josh Strauss did not roll away.
D’Arcy Rae came on for his debut and Ali Price replaced Laidlaw as the Scots sought a source of fresh energy, but the ability to close the game down remains one of Ireland’s major strengths, and they demonstrated it expertly.