In this tournament, Scotland deserved to beat Wales, and lost. Scotland deserved to beat Italy, and lost. Scotland deserved to beat England, and only took a draw. Today, after having deserved some kind of result from 75 minutes of international rugby, Scotland looked like they might have to settle for another 6 Nations draw. Never mind once bitten, in RBS 6 Nations 2010, Scotland had been thrice just shy. They would not be bitten again.
As the scores were locked on 20 points each, Dan Parks placed a kick into the corner of the Irish half, and Kearney, at full-back, made an uncharacteristic error in deciding not to kick the ball away. He was caught by DeLuca and the onrushing Danielli, who tackled and wrestled for the ball. Kearney held on. Penalty Scotland.
As Parks lined up his kick, dead on the touchline, the clock ticked past 78 minutes. The Croke Park crowd roared and booed with all their might. After a brave match, one man had to be braver than all for Scotland. Parks was. He stroked the ball beautifully, and punched the air immediately as the ball curved through the centre of the uprights, before the Scottish scrum – immense in this match – ground out the remaining time and the ball was kicked out of play to end the game.
The Scottish forwards won this game for them: their line-out is officially the tournament’s best, and the scrummaging of Allan Jacobsen and Euan Murray was truly world class. However, the difference between today and their narrow defeats and draws of earlier in the tournament was one thing: scoring a try when it mattered.
Scottish defence was solid again this afternoon, but Ireland threatened to open the floodgates early, scoring through Brian O’Driscoll after ten minutes. The Irish centre received what looked like a forward pass from stand-off Jonathan Sexton, who had produced an excellent burst to break the Scottish line, and finished in fine style. Sexton added the conversion. This try came after Parks had slotted an early penalty for Scotland – the score was 7-3 after 12 minutes.
Ireland would then show at best complacency and at worst a lack of respect for their visitors, as they proceeded to throw the ball hopefully from the ground in the middle of the pitch. They were punished for this lapse immediately, as Scotland worked the ball through hands quickly before number 8 Beattie powered through three defenders and touched down in the corner. Parks missed the conversion from wide. 7-8.
There was to be no further score until Scotland worked a penalty from another bit of fine scrummaging. Parks made no mistake from straight in front to extend the margin to four points, 7-11.
Scotland worked through a number of phases before Parks hit a perfectly struck drop goal over from 35 metres to bring the half to an end. Scotland lead by a converted try, 7-14.
In the second half, Scotland extended this lead, with Parks kicking yet another penalty after Scotland stole an Irish line-out via Jim Hamilton. Ireland were penalised for slowing the ball down at the resulting ruck. 7-17.
Ireland’s pack began to play with more intensity now, and they produced their best moment of the match so far by rolling a maul from halfway to the Scottish 22, before Scotland were penalised for being on the wrong side of the maul. Sexton, after seeing Ronan O’Gara prepare to come on, held his nerve to kick his second penalty from his fourth attempt at goal. 10-17. O’Gara came on immediately after this kick.
Four minutes later, scores were level, as Tommy Bowe, a real contender for player of the tournament, finished well in the corner. O’Gara showed why he was on the pitch by adding a score leveling conversion from wide on the right, 17-17.
With just over six minutes remaining, more Irish infringements at the breakdown led to a long range penalty for Scotland right in front of the posts. Parks was again deadly accurate, pushing his side into the lead, 17-20.
From the resulting kick-off, an Irish hand just knocked forward before Keith Earls sprinted for the line. He had not heard the whistle, but he would otherwise have been clean through for what would surely have been the winning try after a good pickup and pass had put him in. Scotland, despite having the put-in, and having ruled the scrummage all match, were penalised for dropping the scrum. Ronan O’Gara made no mistake to level the scores 20-20.
It would have been extremely harsh treatment of Euan Murray, the Scottish front row, had this score been allowed to take victory from his team: he had played one of the finest 80 minutes of rugby at prop that this tournament has ever witnessed .
As it would turn out, though, this penalty simply meant the stage was set for Parks to lift his third Man of the Match of only his fourth start in this year’s RBS 6 Nations. It was Parks’ long kick to the corner that set him up to make the final, vital, unshakable contribution from the widest of positions.
Scotland, despite finishing on a high, will look back to this tournament as what might have been. Ireland, on the other hand, looked like a side who had little, in truth, to play for having been blown away that night in Paris in February; they seemed a little complacent in the first half, and genuinely short of ideas in the second. The Irish forwards were taught a couple of lessons by a Scottish pack which is well drilled and possesses a unity that any team would envy: those lessons being the scrum and the line-out.
With the ball in hand, there are few sides who posses the abundance of options in attack that Ireland enjoy. Their problem, at least today, was securing good enough possession to start with. We have seen in RBS 6 Nations 2010 that, if they can win it, the Irish throw at the line-out is a huge weapon to start attacks from, with men like Boyle and Earls able to hit the line with frightening pace. How Scotland must wish their three quarters had such speed – if they did, Scotland would have just won a triple crown today. As it was, Ireland lost one. And today’s result was no more or less than was deserved by both sides.
As an end for Croke Park’s brief 6 Nations cameo, it was a sad one for the hosts, however, few will go home feeling robbed of another fine 6 Nations contest. At least for the home nations, this has probably been the closest and hardest fought renewal of this tournament in living memory, however, none of England, Scotland, Wales nor Ireland seem able to put together the perfect mixture of forwards and backs that the French team currently enjoys.
Until next year.