So, 2020 finishes as it started for both these teams, Ireland beating Scotland in Dublin in the third-place Autumn Nations Cup playoff in a manner that came without any of the ifs, buts and maybes that accompanied the 19-12 Six Nations outcome last February.
Stuart Hogg’s error in dropping the ball over the try line was the main talking point ten months ago, the consensus being that the Scots had left a positive result behind them.
However, the visitors could have no complaints here, Ireland bouncing back from a pedestrian opening half-hour to score three tries in a dominant twelve minute spell either side of the interval, the first coming with Duncan Taylor in the sin-bin following his yellow card for a deliberate knock-on.
That 19-point scoring burst was the winning of the game for Ireland and while there was a momentary wobble when Duhan van der Merwe darted in for an opportunistic try, the hosts finished the game the stronger outfit and were fully deserving of their 31-16 win which would have been even more generous had Peter O’Mahony not put a foot in touch when scoring late on.
This had been billed as a contest between two teams who had been tracking along a similar wavelength since respective brutal 2019 World Cup exits, both coming into this play playoff with identical W5 L3 records for this calendar year.
— Autumn Nations Cup ? (@autumnnations) December 5, 2020
Scotland arrived buoyed by recent away wins at Wales and Italy and while their forwards were initially combative for the opening period that saw them 9-3 ahead after 27 minutes, they didn’t possess the resilience to secure what would have been their most important road win of the year.
They started brightly, Jamie Ritchie demonstrating he was going to be a breakdown nuisance by stealing ruck ball, and even when he was penalised at the breakdown which CJ Stander carried to, Johnny Sexton was wide with the seven-minute penalty attempt.
Zander Fagerson was next to get in on the poaching act, bottling up James Ryan for the infringement that resulted in Jaco van der Walt, the latest new cap under the 36-month residency rule, seeing a long-range penalty attempt cannon off an upright, but the Test newcomer had the accuracy on 13 minutes from closer in after Ireland strayed offside.
Scotland were also inventive in the carry, a raking break from his 22 by Stuart Hogg in the early exchanges setting in train a pattern where the visitors looked to manoeuvre possession with endeavour and width by shifting the ball quickly.
This was evident in the long pass from Duncan Taylor to Hogg that soon enticed Ali Price to kick cleverly in behind into touch for the lineout that resulted in an Ireland overthrow and Scotland sensing a possible try until a van der Walt knock-on.
Next, the Scots pilfered a penalty at the scrum, Cian Healy collapsing on an Irish put-in and van der Walt doubling his side’s advantage to six points 20 minutes in. Ireland needed some respite and they got it when a sloppy Scotland pass on halfway went loose and CJ Stander pounced, shipping a no-arms tackle from Fraser Brown that allowed Sexton to trim the gap back to three.
It didn’t last long, a rip by Iain Henderson falling foul of the referee under their posts after a period of play where the Scots had again stretched the defence by going wide to the impressive Duhan van der Merwe.
Ireland’s breakdown uncertainly was further laid bare with what happened after Robbie Henshaw gathered a kick in the air. Rather than protect the ball on the floor at the 22, it came loose and Price snapped up to instigate a counter that ended with Scotland forcing the hosts to throw in inside their own 22.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) December 5, 2020
An easy out resulted, though, Bundee Aki taken in the air as he jumped to gather possession and with a pass from him down in the opposition 22 deliberately knocked on by Taylor, Ireland had a man advantage for the closing nine minutes of the opening half.
Sexton kicked the penalty and Ireland went to work trying to exploit their numerical advantage. A carry from Jacob Stockdale from ball stemming from a scrum secured a penalty – in at the side from Price – that was kicked to touch five metres out.
The maul was halted but pick and go prompted the penalty advantage that invited Sexton to kick towards Henshaw and his backwards deflection was dived on by Keith Earls for the 38th-minute try. Sexton flunked the conversation but with Ireland 11-9 ahead at the break, momentum has shifted.
Hogg’s cheap knock-on of a Sexton kick shortly after the restart was heavily punished, Healy hunted over at the posts from the pick and go that followed the scrum and Sexton added the extras on this occasion.
Scottish offside at the maul gave Ireland their next in, an attack sweetly finished in the corner following precise passing from Henshaw and O’Mahony and another conversion followed for a healthy 25-9 Ireland lead.
The outcome should now have been beyond doubt but the Scots, finally getting hands on the ball again, hit back with an opportunistic try six minutes later, van der Merwe sniping down the edge of a ruck, beating Rob Herring all too easily and embarking on a mazy run to the line.
Further pep was put in the visitors’ step with Fraser Brown catching replacement Josh van der Flier holding on while on the floor, but Scotland were soon penalised for the same type infringement in the opposition 22.
That was really the end for the contest, replacement Ross Byrne tapping over an easy penalty after Sexton has limped off. O’Mahony was then denied by the touchline, play coming back for Byrne to land his second kick to seal Ireland’s 15-point win.
IRELAND 35 – Tries: Earls (38, 50), Healy (44). Cons: Sexton (44, 51). Pens: Sexton (23, 32), Byrne (66, 76) SCOTLAND 16 – Try: van der Merwe (56). Con: van der Walt (57). Pens: van der Walt (13, 20, 27)
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) December 5, 2020
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