Autumn Nations Cup
Third Place Final
Ireland 31-16 Scotland
A much-improved Ireland ended 2020 on a high with a comfortable win over Scotland at the Aviva Stadium.
It meant Andy Farrell’s side finished in third place in the Autumn Nations Cup but the victory meant much more than that accolade, bringing with it the comfort of getting back on track following disappointing outings against England and Georgia.
Three tries in the space of 12 minutes either side of half-time from Keith Earls (2) and Cian Healy, did the damage against a limited Scotland side, whose last win in Dublin came 10 years ago.
Ireland began well, dominating possession and territory in the first ten minutes, seemingly up for the fight as they had talked about in the build-up.
But they couldn’t convert that pressure into points and after Johnny Sexton and debutant Jaco van der Walt swapped missed penalties, both teams’ first missed kicks of the tournament, it was Scotland who first troubled the scoreboard.
Healy was adjudged to be offside and the new out-half kicked the Scots into a lead in the 13th minute, soon doubling the advantage with another penalty from a collapsed scrum.
Sexton, who had his left leg heavily strapped at this stage, got Ireland up and running with a fine 40m kick following a no-arms tackle by Fraser Brown.
However, that was cancelled out by another Van der Walt penalty, this time Iain Henderson pinged for ripping the ball after the tackle was completed.
And for the middle section of the first half Ireland seemed short on confidence, the issue that has dogged the team for the last seven weeks.
It wasn’t helped by a loose lineout and scrum, alongside 17 missed tackles, all serving to boost the confidence of the visitors, who were being led by lively full-back Stuart Hogg.
Sexton, winning his 91st cap, got Ireland back to within three with his second penalty in the 32nd minute.
That came when Duncan Taylor was penalised for a deliberate knock on, for which the centre would spend 10 minutes in the bin.
That spurred the hosts on and a fine move led to a period of pressure inside the Scottish 22, which laid the foundation for the first try of the match two minutes before half-time.
Declining an easy kick at goal, Sexton tapped into the corner and while playing a penalty advantage off the subsequent passage, cross-kicked for an on-rushing Robbie Henshaw.
While the Leinster centre couldn’t hold on to the ball in the air, he did enough to direct it backwards and Earls pounced to snap up his 31st international try.
The missed conversion left the score 11-9 at the break but the call to push for the try and then executing the move was worth more to the team’s confidence than the five points it yielded.
A failure to score at that point would have felt like a kick in the stomach.
But that was to prove the lift the team needed and they killed off the game in the first ten minutes after the break with a quick-fire double.
First, Healy, after a half-break by man of the match Caelan Doris, was dragged over the line with the help of Rob Herring and Peter O’Mahony for his seventh try in green.
Earls went over in corner five minutes later and with both tries converted by Sexton, Ireland led by 16 with 30 minutes to play.
Wing Duhan van der Merwe reduced the margin to nine six minutes later when the caught Herring napping at the side of a ruck before arrowing home from 30 yards for a try that was converted by Van der Walt.
Both sides then blew visits to each other’s 22s before Sexton limped off in the 64th minute with a dead leg.
His replacement, Ross Byrne, extended the lead to 12 points with a penalty from in front of the posts.
Ulster prop Eric O’Sullivan came on for his debut, the 12th new cap under Farrell in 2020, as a raft of replacements flooded in for the final quarter.
O’Mahony was denied a try in the corner by a foot in touch with four minutes to play but Byrne whacked over a penalty when the play was called back to leave comfortable 15-point winners.
The hard-earned victory will made the two-month break before the start of the Six Nations much more relaxing, but there’s still plenty to work on ahead of the trip to Wales.
Ireland: Jacob Stockdale, Hugo Keenan, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Keith Earls, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Caelan Doris.
Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Eric O’Sullivan, John Ryan, Quinn Roux, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Chris Farrell.
Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Darcy Graham, Chris Harris, Duncan Taylor, Duhan van der Merwe, Jaco van der Walt, Ali Price; Rory Sutherland, Fraser Brown, Zander Fagerson, Scott Cummings, Jonny Gray, Blade Thomson, Jamie Ritchie, Matt Fagerson.
Replacements: Stuart McInally, Oli Kebble, Willem Nel, Sam Skinner, Blair Cowan, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Huw Jones, Sean Maitland.
Referee: Matthew Carley (England)