Scotland won the opening game of the Six Nations for the first time since 2006, defeating Ireland in a game spent innovating in the first half and then digging in during the second.
Before the match there was a sense of confidence in Scotland, a feeling absent for some years. That confidence came with a caveat – “It will be close,” the wisdom ran. Well that would end up proving to be correct, but perhaps few expected Scotland to pour it on as they did in the first half. Two Stuart Hogg fissures and a cheeky lineout move involving Alex Dunbar looked to catch Ireland cold.
Ireland looked to have the bit between their teeth and the momentum behind them in the second half, with Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip drawing more attention while the phases ticked over. They had a deserved first-half try for Keith Earls before the second half offered up robust, swing-of-the-game scores for Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson. That put Ireland ahead for the first time. They had the ascendency in the scrum. Indeed, as they rolled on the air seemed to suck out of the stadium and a familiar feeling crept up.
Yet Scotland kept burrowing. Their rearguard scrambling, willingness to meet the collisions and the boot of Greig Laidlaw saw them over the line.
Innovation – At the dying moments of the first half, it genuinely looked like Scotland were going to score their bonus point try. In the end they forced it and almost allowed Simon Zebo an intercept try. That man himself spun and wriggled. O’Brien picked from a ruck when there was no guard ahead and galloped up field. And Paddy Jackson’s brain shifted gears quick enough to wobble through the defence and score when they foolishly rushed up at him.
Big defence – As he spoke to the press, Vern Cotter called out the team’s defence. He saw it as the nation’s best win of his reign, but at the bedrock of it was punchy tackling and the work-rate.
First-ever bonus point – Ireland will be deeply disappointed in their first half, and in letting Scotland regain the lead far into the second. However, no matter how loose they felt they were, to grab three tries and keep in touch speaks of a team who can be dangerous even when being sloppy. Cotter reckons they will grow as a force. Schmidt will be putting the hammer down to make sure they are.
Stuart Hogg – It is one helluva thing to live up to the hype. But while pure pace saw him score his first, to stand wide and dummy during a two-on-one to grab his second try was impressive. The bad news for you, mate, is pretty much everyone else has him in their Fantasy team!
Timely penalties – While Scotland conceded two more penalties during this game, Ireland infringed at the death when they should have been seeing things out. It was at a point in time when caution should have been the watchword.
Weakness in the win – Scotland do have one big area to work on: set-piece. Scrum was under real pressure (although the fact Zander Fagerson lasted the 80 will hearten Cotter). Lineout was erratic. They made up for it with turnovers at key moments and sterling defence, but that will take a lot of work.
Wastefulness – Ireland in fact dominated on several fronts. More possession, more clean breaks, more defenders beaten, more offloads… They gave up turnovers, but they could have converted more chances. Especially when they looked to have the advantage. Could they have gone for the sticks more?
213 – the number of tackles put in by Scotland – compared with Ireland’s 117.
11 – the number of years since Scotland last won a Championship opener.
7 – The number of defenders Rob Kearney beat.
2 – Two penalties from Jamie Heaslip at the very death will sting for the No 8 who has been in incredible form of late.
Scotland Stuart Hogg; Sean Maitland, Huw Jones (Mark Bennett 60), Alex Dunbar, Tommy Seymour; Finn Russell (D Weir 47), Greg Laidlaw (c); Allan Dell (G Reid 55), Fraser Brown (R Ford 4), Zander Fagerson, Richie Gray, Jonny Gray, Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson (J Barclay 49), Josh Strauss (T Swinson 65).
Replacements: Simon Berghan, Ali Price
Tries: Hogg 2, Dunbar. Con: Laidlaw 3. Pen: Laidlaw 2.
Ireland Rob Kearney, Keith Earls (T Bowe 67), Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Paddy Jackson, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath (C Healy 56), Rory Best (c), Tadhg Furlong (J Ryan 68), Iain Henderson (U Dillane 63), CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien (J van der Flier 65), Jamie Heaslip.