Ireland keep Grand Slam dream alive with bruising win over Scotland
Guinness Six Nations
Scotland 7-22 Ireland
Ireland fought off Scotland and a spate of injuries to keep their Grand Slam dreams alive with a 22-7 victory at BT Murrayfield.
The visitors lost starting hooker Dan Sheehan after 18 minutes and his replacement Ronan Kelleher shortly after half-time, but refused to show any weakness, moving clear of Scotland in the final half-hour.
The world’s No.1 side also lost Caelan Doris and Iain Henderson inside the first half after Scotland had lost Richie Gray. Despite the steady flow of stricken stars, the match lived up to its billing and started at a frenzied speed.
Scottish hopes of a first Triple Crown for 33 years were well and truly on earlier in the afternoon, after Huw Jones burst through.
But that score was as good as it got for Gregor Townsend’s troops, who were unable to assert much rhythm after the break.
Mack Hansen crossed prior to the interval to nudge Ireland ahead and he set up another for Jack Conan after James Lowe had powered his way through to deliver a final blow to Scotland and their Championship hopes.
The game began at a frantic pace, Scotland showing intent early with some charges but unable to find a way through before Finn Russell put boot to ball.
His kick found only Hugo Keenan, where Ireland’s first attack ended in similar fashion but with Johnny Sexton finding the touchline with a grubber through.
Scotland tried a quick lineout to escape trouble, but the long throw went only to Doris. Ireland were able to recycle and get over, but their joy was short-lived when it became clear the quick lineout had been taken with a different ball.
Both sides were dealt early blows, Richie Gray heading off for Scotland and soon joined by Doris.
In between those injuries, Ireland had hit the front, Sexton slotting a penalty from in front of the posts, but it could have been more but for a brilliant try-saving tackle from Duhan van der Merwe on Hansen.
While Ireland enjoyed more territory in the first ten minutes, the situation was reversed as Scotland got their hands on the ball and went through a 15-phase attack that Ireland were able to repel.
It was only temporary respite though, Scotland again hammering away through their forwards before releasing wide to the backs for centres Sione Tuipulotu and Jones to combine with the latter bursting over for his fourth try of the campaign.
Russell converted to make it 7-3 to the home side midway through the first half.
Ireland kept on losing players, Sheehan injured in the build-up to the Scotland try, before Henderson also departed soon after.
The momentum turned on a Russell spill, which saw Sexton boot downfield. Kyle Steyn beat Keenan to the ball and though the hosts were initially able to clear their lines, Ireland smelt blood.
Keenan produced an excellent touchline pass for Hansen to gather and he applied the gas to beat Van der Merwe on the outside, needing the full width of the Murrayfield pitch to dot down.
Scotland rallied, with Jones inches from doubling his personal tally, but a fantastic tackle from Keenan and a turnover from Josh van der Flier brought the attack to a standstill.
Lowe then showed what he could do with ball in hand, surging through the gain line and finding Garry Ringrose who carried to the 22.
A couple of penalties saw Ireland with the throw five metres out but Kelleher put too much on it, allowing opposite number George Turner to lead the Scottish charge back downfield.
There was time for one more Scotland attack before the interval but Turner, who had been everywhere in a pulsating first 40, was bundled into touch to leave Ireland a point ahead at the break.
Ireland’s injury fortunes worsened, with hooker Kelleher withdrawn only 30 minutes after he had entered the pitch, leaving Van der Flier on lineout duties and Cian Healy at the centre of the front row on his return to the Test arena.
Straight into the thick of the action, veteran Healy helped Ireland win a scrum penalty, which Sexton duly sent towards the corner.
The stand-off then launched an up-and-under into the Edinburgh sky, which Hansen rose highest to gather. Ireland worked the phases and had penalty advantage but it was not required.
After a miss pass from the latest newcomer Jamison Gibson-Park, Lowe bundled his way past Steyn to register his third try of the Championship. Sexton converted to give Ireland breathing space for the first time.
And just five minutes later, there was daylight between the two sides. Hansen turned provider for Ireland’s third, with an assist to match the quality of his finish earlier in the game.
Fixing the defence out wide, he flung the ball out to replacement Conan, who coasted home to puncture the remaining optimism inside BT Murrayfield.
A lengthy stoppage then followed, with Ringrose eventually stretchered off the field after suffering what appeared to be a serious head injury.
Bundee Aki returned to the pitch, in what was Ireland’s ninth alternation of the afternoon.
Even with a 15-point lead and victory assured, Ireland went about searching for a bonus point in the closing stages.
Gibson-Park tore away down the left and found James Ryan on the inside but the second row fumbled forward with the try line in sight.
Ireland may not have managed the five points they desired but did muster a crucial four, leaving all set to clinch the Slam on home soil against England in Round 5. Scotland meanwhile will look to round out their campaign with a home victory over Italy