Ireland’s quest for a fourth ever Six Nations Grand Slam remains on, after Andy Farrell’s side refused to let a series of disruptive injuries deny them against Scotland, winning 22-7 at Murrayfield.
The visitors lost three of their starting forward pack inside the opening 25 minutes – No 8 Caelan Doris, hooker Dan Sheehan and second-row Iain Henderson – and then lost replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher early in the second half, leaving them, remarkably, scrummaging with replacement prop Cian Healy at hooker, and with flanker Josh van der Flier the lineout thrower.
Yet they regrouped to score vital second-half tries through wing James Lowe – following a wonderful piece of aerial skill from Mack Hansen – and No 8 Jack Conan, after Hansen and Scotland centre Huw Jones had traded tries in a tight and tense, albeit fast-paced, first half.
Scotland 7-22 Ireland – Score summary
Scotland – Tries: Jones (17). Russell (18).
Ireland – Tries: Hansen (28), Lowe (57), Conan (62). Cons: Sexton (58, 63). Pens: Sexton (13).
Ireland’s defence never wavered on the day either, repeatedly knocking Scotland back and keeping them out despite immense disarrangement to the side, and it leaves them one victory away – with England to come to Dublin next week – from adding to previous Grand Slam efforts in 1948, 2009 and 2018.
Ireland made much of the early running, and a moment of controversy followed in the sixth minute as a potential try was ruled out, but not for anything the visitors had done, rather because Scotland had taken a quick lineout within their own 22 with the wrong ball, sending it straight into the arms of Doris. Referee Luke Pearce quickly ruled out the score in a huge let off for the hosts.Ireland continued to come forward in attack, and on 13 minutes, after a barrage of pressure within the Scotland 22, skipper Johnny Sexton chose to take the points on offer via a penalty for a 3-0 lead after the home defensive line were caught offside.
Doris – perhaps Ireland’s best player in the championship to date – soon limped off having hurt his back in the non-try incident, before Scotland carved out their first threatening attack – Jones and co looking dangerous, only for Ireland to succeed in tackling full-back Stuart Hogg into touch. The Scots didn’t put their heads down though, and a minute later Jones was over for the opening try as Conor Murray was punished for not finding touch with a clearance kick.
Sheehan and Henderson then departed within four minutes of one another, but Ireland were dogged in maintaining their standards, producing a lovely passage of play – including a stunning Hugo Keenan pass – for Hansen to score in the corner, with the energetic wing doing exceptionally to ground the ball despite the likely illegal attentions – no-arms tackle – of the sizeable Duhan van der Merwe.
Sexton missed the tricky conversion to leave Ireland a single point ahead, but Van der Flier and Lowe next combined for a vital breakdown penalty near the Ireland try-line to keep Scotland out past the half-hour, after Van der Merwe had made ground in contact. Scotland skipper Jamie Ritchie and playmaker Finn Russell then turned down a potential shot for points in the final play of the half, and it proved the wrong call as the Irish tackled their opponents into touch again.
A second Kelleher overthrow early in the second half at a lineout hinted at something problematic, and the Leinsterman was next to depart, leaving Ireland scrambling for options to avoid going down to 14 men and uncontested scrums for the final half hour. Their solution was extraordinary shifts from Healy and Van der Flier out of position, though no one could have expected the two players would be able to provide Ireland with functioning set-pieces.
Despite the events, Ireland scored the critical next try as a fabulous high ball take from Hansen in the Scotland 22 under a Jamison Gibson-Park box-kick laid the platform, before Lowe finished in the opposite corner after a trademark quick Irish attack. Sexton converted beautifully from out wide too to leave Ireland more than a score ahead.
Riding the crest of their own momentum, and with Van der Flier managing to provide possession through the lineout, Ireland soon had a third try through replacement Conan, with Hansen again involved as he threw a lovely miss-pass for the former to ride the challenge of Van der Merwe and ground.
Sexton again converted brilliantly – drawing level with compatriot Ronan O’Gara as the leading Six Nations points scorer in history on 557 in doing so – and though Ireland lost key centre Garry Ringrose to a serious head injury thereafter, they looked the more threatening to score again as a magnificent late counterattack involving Lowe, Gibson-Park and James Ryan just didn’t come off when the lock knocked on in a final offload attempt.
The remaining time saw Ireland defend the Test out strongly and comfortably, securing a memorable and quite unique Six Nations victory.