How did they do that?
February 24, 2013
Scotland's Jim Hamilton was a key figure in his side's gutsy victory at Murrayfield © Getty Images
"Statistics are like a bikini, they show a lot but not the whole thing," commented interim Scotland coach Scott Johnson recently and never has a truer word been spoken. His side were dominated throughout their Six Nations clash with Ireland at Murrayfield except in one key area - the score.
An Ireland side playing away from home and ravaged by injuries in the wake of their defeat to England claimed 74% of possession and 71% of territory - fuelled by the youthful exuberance of debutants Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson. That superior dynamism produced four linebreaks and left 16 defenders flailing at thin air - a cutting edge that the Scots could only dream of despite the presence of proven game-breakers like Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland. The Scots were too busy on the back foot to the tune of 128 tackles - opposed to Ireland's 44 - and that's not counting the 16 that the hosts missed.
So how did they conjure the most unlikely of victories? As valiant as Scotland were in defence, it was Ireland's bold approach and shortcomings in attack that ultimately decided the result. The Irish were not lacking in confidence with the decision to kick a penalty to the corner in the opening minutes of the game a clear signal of their intent and desire to boss proceedings - but it would be the first of several fruitless visits to Scots' 22.
Chances came and went at an alarming rate in the first half and there was always the fear that they would pay for their profligacy. Perhaps the most costly of chances saw Jackson shovel a forward pass to winger Craig Gilroy with the Scotland defence stretched to breaking point. But the more telling missed opportunity was that sparked by an electric break from winger Keith Earls. He sliced through the Scotland defence with ease but opted not to pass inside to centre Brian O'Driscoll and instead backed himself for the corner. He was soon tearing up his betting slip having been bundled into touch and as he lay on his back and contemplated his error he was hit with a verbal barrage from his vastly-experienced team-mate who was clearly aware that you cannot afford to spurn such chances.
But he didn't have a monopoly on imprecision. Fullback Rob Kearney's decision to run into his own man inside the Scotland 22 as Ireland looked rescue the game in the dying moments was not befitting of a player of his class - nor was replacement fly-half Ronan O'Gara's howler. The veteran playmaker's decision to cross-chip the ball into a crowded midfield with barely five minutes on the clock and with his side trailing by just a point was bizarre at best and unforgiveable at worst and may hasten the soon-to-be 36-year-old's international retirement. The loose ball was hacked on by Scotland's Tim Visser and O'Driscoll and Marshall both failed to re-gather the ball. Scotland flooded forward and their efforts were rewarded with a penalty that the assured Greig Laidlaw slotted to take his side beyond a successful kick or drop goal.
Scotland's resurgence was all the more impressive due to the fact that Ireland took a firm grip on the game with a try in the opening moments of the second half. Gilroy's score appeared to have broken the Scots' resolve but instead did just the opposite with the introduction of replacement fly-half Duncan Weir fanning the flames of their recovery with his fresh impetus playing on Ireland's insecurities. Prop Geoff Cross was another sizeable thorn in Ireland's side having stepped in for Euan Murray due to the latter's refusal to play on a Sunday due to his religious beliefs. He was swamped by adulation following each scrum success and was singled out for praise by the Scots' stand-out player - lock Jim Hamilton - who claimed the Man of the Match honour having been largely responsible for disrupting Ireland's lineout while being his usual stubborn self in defence. His personal stats were not exactly sensational - a grand total of 1m with ball in hand, five tackles, six lineout claims and two penalties - but as we know such numbers do not tell the full story with his inspirational presence counting for so much more.
Amazingly, the result sees Scotland notch back-to-back Six Nations victories for the first time since 2001 with even those consecutive successes spanning two seasons due to the foot and mouth crisis. But perhaps more importantly for the general health of Scottish rugby they will enter the fourth round of this year's Championship with their title challenge still alive. Admittedly, they need the Grand Slam-chasing England to slip up and victories as well as a hatful of points against Wales or France in their remaining matches but they - and Johnson who is surely angling for a full-time appointment - will settle for those slim hopes.
For over a decade the Scots have lived off scraps at Europe's top table and while they remain some ay from the finished article, what they have produced against England, Italy and now the Irish suggests they may have rediscovered their bite and appetite for success.
Ireland's Rob Kearney reflects on his side's defeat to Scotland © PA Photos
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.