Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe can’t stop Jack Cohan going over for Ireland’s third try at Murrayfield on Sunday. Inpho/James Crombie

Ireland show mettle vs Scots, set up Grand Slam game on Saturday

Scotland 7; Ireland 22

Four down, one left to a fourth ever Grand Slam! Wow this is  quite a fairytale we are witnessing in Irish rugby.

Despite losing four of his pack in the first half-hour, including two hookers and despite a quirkily disallowed try by ref Luke Pearce, Ireland Head Coach Andy Farrell was all smiles as he and his team faced a plethora of left-field challenges and still managed to win pulling up at Murrayfield on Sunday.

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This was a game where Scotland sought to make statements about their arrival as a rugby force and in a bone-crunching first half, they gave as good as they got against a visiting team that had to constantly reshuffle their forces on the hoof.

Caolan Doris was first to depart after athletically catching a Scottish throw on their own line and falling awkwardly on his shoulder before setting up a  Dan Sheehan try that was whistled off by officialdon because the hosts had taken a quick throw with a ball other than the one that Ireland had kicked into touch. Their problem, not ours, thought all the Irish in the ground but Pearce cancelled the score as he set about a poor day at the office. 

Then Ian Henderson had to depart the fray suffering from a broken wrist and within 20 minutes, half our bench was already in the trenches working hard to stop the Scottish artillery from overpowering our wounded  pack.

For Farrell and Paul O'Connell and company to see through the first half leading by 8-7 when all this mayhem was descending on their heads is testament to his constant ramming home to players to expect the unexpected. By golly, did they get more than their fair share after  Sheehan departed with concussion and his replacement Ronan Kelleher suffered a shoulder injury and was unable to throw in the ball.

Cian Healy, a former loose and tight head prop became an emergency hooker on Sunday and had he not been able to man the middle of the front row, Ireland would have been reduced to 14 men - a rugby law that only makes sense if a team wants to have uncontested scrums and pretend both their hookers are injured.

Ireland pretended nothing in this regard; instead the coaches told Healy to hook and then whispered in Josh Van der Flier's ear that he would be taking over throw in duties. No one batted an eye-lid and why would they? It emerged the squad has been practicing for such contingencies during their preparations to these big matches.

A 15-point win this time without a bonus point was more than anyone thought could be achieved. Now this Saturday only England, humbled by France in last week's penultimate series, stand between us and tangible rewards for being ranked World No. 1 this year.

Scotland could have no complaints as they scored only one converted try and went the final 63 minutes as barren knights of the oval realm. When the big question was put to two sides who appeared first among equals, Ireland stepped up to the mark with our flying wingers,  the brilliant Mack Hansen,  the ebullient James Lowe scoring sensational tries and the ever reliable supersub Jack Conan barging his way over for the score that killed the game as a contest and gave us our eight successive victory over the men in dark blue.

This week the Irish training camp will no doubt resemble Emergency Ward 10 as the medics work hard at seeing who is fit for battle after Doris, Sheehan, Kelleher and Henderson were lastly joined in the injury ward by influential center Garry Ringrose, who was stretchered off in the second half.

Farrell, as ever, while unable to definitely answer who would be ready to face Steve Borthwick's wounded side, was full of optimism, pointing out that Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw had seen their first action of the year in Murrayfield and would be the better for the experience back at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday.

In fact from the Italian game, Farrell was able to bring back in Johnny Sexton, Ringrose and Tadhg Furlong to their starting line-up while Jamison Gibson-Park and Robbie Henshaw came off the bench and did their part in ensuring the victory.

The first 20 minutes of the game was frenetic and aside from the alarming injury count mounting up, the pace of the game meant that neither Scotland nor Ireland could always fulfill plays at such a speed. Even though we had the better of possession, we were not punching holes and the hosts were defending their line well — so well, in fact, that Sexton elected to kick three points from a penalty rather than go to the corner as he has done without fail all year. That only poked the bear in the eye as Scotland camped on our line and effortlessly went over thanks to a cute run by  Huw Davies in a well rehearsed move as he latched onto Sione Tuipulotu’s pass  to dive over near the posts.

They were certainly putting it up to Ireland at every turn and it took a defiant boot from Peter O’Mahony to get us 70 meters up the field following great work between himself and Sexton in defending a Scottish three-quarters' assault.

Directly from that  Hansen took a monster pass from Hugo Keenan on the burst and just about dived over in the corner before hitting the touchline or the flag in making his downward pressure on the ball to record his sixth try. Sexton was unable to convert from the acute angle but the 8-7 lead, though slight, felt like Ireland had made a statement about their intentions.

The personnel problems mounted on the changeover when Kelleher was unable to continue and World Player of the Year,  Van der Flier, showed us another string on his bow as Healy took up the hooking duties. Funny to think that such an elite sport can have two make-shift performers playing such roles for an entire half and their team not just competes but wins the key battles.

 Fortune favors the brave and as Ireland withstood intense Scottish onslaughts in the loose and tight, the introduction of Gibson-Park was the master stroke that changed the tempo of the game in Ireland's direction. He flung a mammoth pass after Hansen had won an aerial race to claim a Garryowen and Lowe used his momentum to crash over in the other corner. Sexton pinged the added points and suddenly the Irish dander was up again. 

Man of the match Hansen was again a central figure in double dummying before releasing Conan to touchdown in the right corner. You knew it was our day when Sexton's touch line kick bisected the posts with the conversion to leave 15 points between the teams.

From there to the end Ireland were in charge and the only real worry was the head injury sustained by Ringrose that required five minutes of on-field treatment.

Afterwards a relaxed Ireland Head Coach spoke of the "organized chaos" that had dominated the side's changing room at the interval and highlighted the team's "immense character" which saw them through this toughest of tests since New Zealand last summer.

"It wasn't champagne rugby, but in terms of character, fight and want for each other - that's the best game I've been involved in. If you'd have seen us at half-time, honestly you'd have laughed because all the lads were laughing. It was organized chaos, we didn't know what was happening until the last second about whether Ronan was coming back on.

"We made half a plan with Cian going to scrummage, because he's good at that and that paid off for us. Josh throwing in, well what can't he do? He took up golf three years ago and he's in single figures on his handicap. I just thought for somebody like Garry on his 50th cap,  deserves something like that to look back on."

Sexton, who is now 37, has scored 557 points in this competition and on Sunday drew level alongside former Ireland out-half Ronan O’Gara’s record.

Referring to Ireland's ability to face adversity and move on, he claimed: "We’ve built it over the last three years and it’s nice for it to come to fruition today, I think. So look, a very special day but ultimately it’s a semi-final and the big one is next week."

Scotland Head Coach Gregor Townsend was disappointed with the overall performance of his side. "I'd rather talk about the first half than the second half, because the second half was disappointing. We created chances in that first half – it was a real high-energy performance. What you'd call a proper test match. Both teams were a little fatigued at the start of the second half, it was there for us to lift the energy. We didn't, we weren't accurate enough. Ireland grew in confidence and were clearly the better team. They adapted really well. They got through the first couple of lineouts and their scrum got stronger with three props in there," he pointed out.

Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Conor Murray; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Tom O'Toole, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.

Ref: L Pearce (RFU).

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