RBS 6 Nations: Ireland send Scotland packing
Ireland top the RBS 6 Nations table after the first weekend, yesterday's 28-6 victory over Scotland having eclipsed the wins recorded by Wales and France the previous day.
Ireland outscored the Scots 17-3 in a second period they dominated totally and with Wales, the defending champions, coming to Dublin on Saturday the scene is set for what promises to be an epic encounter.
Brian O'Driscoll created history by becoming the most capped Irish player of all time – with 129 appearances – on a day which saw Joe Schmidt preside over his first Six Nations match.
The Irish made light of the hand of fate's intervention in robbing them of their captain, Paul O'Connell, the victim of a chest infection.
O'Connell's withdrawal saw Ulster's Dan Tuohy promoted from the bench for his first Six Nations match and provincial colleague Iain Henderson handed the number 19 jersey, with the captaincy passing to Jamie Heaslip.
Five Ulstermen in the starting XV, then, just as had been the case against the Scots last season at Murrayfield.
Scotland – with Stuart Hogg buzzing – opened with a flurry and ought to have taken the lead when a Greig Laidlaw penalty, awarded against Ulster's Chris Henry for sealing off, struck a post.
Ireland responded with a couple of testing kicks by Jonny Sexton followed by a great maul which brought them to within a couple of metres of the guests' line. Tellingly they attacked the resultant Scottish scrum, putting down a marker.
This increase in pressure promptly told, with Kelly Brown conceding a penalty and Sexton making no mistake – 3-0 after 13 frantic minutes.
Five minutes later Laidlaw levelled the scores, though the penalty might well have been awarded the other way, Brown having used Sexton as a doormat as the Ireland fly-half tried to roll away following a tackle moments earlier.
Parity was short-lived, with Sexton giving the best possible answer to that injustice by landing a 23rd minute penalty. It was proving to be every bit as feisty and physical as had been anticipated.
Home full-back Rob Kearney, winning his 50th cap, did brilliantly to keep a Duncan Weir kick in play in the Irish 22, driving the dark blues back with a good clearance.
From a scrum, David Denton almost forced his way over in the right-hand corner, but his way was blocked and he was driven into touch. No quarter asked or given.
Scotland's right wing Sean Maitland limped off just after the half-hour having landed heavily on his left ankle under an aerial challenge by Dave Kearney.
Then two minutes before half-time a magnificent break by Sexton almost yielded a try. The Racing Metro star danced through the Scottish ranks and having broken into the open he threw a glorious long pass to captain Heaslip who was forced to dip a toe over the touchline by replacement Max Evans' covering tackle.
It proved to be merely a reprieve for the Scots, however.
Ireland did not leave empty-handed, for with Tuohy to the fore they recycled from a penalty they had opted to run rather than kick. Luke Marshall and Sexton combined to feed Rob Kearney who put Ulster's Andrew Trimble in on the stroke of half-time.
Those first 40 minutes had been hard, fast and furious, but at the end of them what mattered was that Ireland had an eight-point lead.
That was promptly cut to five points courtesy of a 43rd minute Laidlaw penalty and although Ireland responded with a promising passage of recycling in which flankers Peter O'Mahony and Henry excelled, it ended with Sexton's pass failing to find Dave Kearney.
But Rory Best's success in pinching Scottish scrum ball kept them in the right part of the pitch. And it was Best's accurate line-out and Tuohy's confident take that gave rise to a perfectly controlled maul which took Ireland over the Scots' goal-line whereupon, between them, Heaslip and the Ulster hooker finished what the latter had started.
Sexton added the extras – 18-6 and Ireland in the driving seat.
At that they upped the intensity. The Irish were winning turn-overs and Scotland were clinging on desperately. Inevitably they coughed up another penalty enabling Sexton to make the gap 15 points.
A Cian Healy burst brought the crowd to their feet until Duncan Weir got back to fell him with a superb tackle.
Into the fourth quarter, the third having been played almost exclusively in Scotland's half, and Martin Moore joined the fray on the tight-head side of the Irish front row for what was his first cap.
Moore – just 22 – took to it like the proverbial duck to water, thrice in quick succession pumping his powerful thighs to make precious yards.
And with Scotland starting to wilt, Rob Kearney marked his 50th cap with a fine try set up by Henry and Tuohy whose offload was a thing of beauty.
Sexton added the conversion with what was his final contribution before making way for Paddy Jackson and with Henderson also introduced in the dying minutes that brought Ulster's representation to seven players.
Great day for Ireland, great day for Ulster.