Ireland 28 Scotland 8
So it's come to this. Ireland can almost reach out and touch it, the Six Nations trophy that is, and for the first time will have a Grand Slam to play for at Twickenham in seven days' time, on St Patrick's Day. You could hardly have scripted it better.
The question, at the end of this third successive bonus-point home win, was whether the title would by then be Ireland's or still on the line. For the latter to happen, England now have to beat France with a bonus point in Paris. At the same time, they also had to make serious inroads into Ireland's 44-point advantage on points differential to have a viable chance of winning an historic third Six Nations in a row.
It says something about Ireland’s current well being that this relatively convincing win came from a far from perfect performance.
Ireland were assuredly the happier, and slightly flattered, by a 14-3 lead after a somewhat harem-scarem first half in which their early ambition floundered on some mistakes and good Scottish defence.
Although Joe Schmidt will assuredly feel Ireland left points behind, there's no doubt that Scotland butchered at least two gilt-edged chances and Ireland's crucial breakthrough came from another Jacob Stockdale intercept try.
But the difference was that Ireland didn’t overplay their hand and, by and large, turned pressure into points. Predictably, they also exerted more control to generate more than 60 per cent possession and territory. Although the Scots were, as expected, more of a nuisance at the breakdown – where they forced four turnovers – they were mostly when they were ensnared in their own half.
Otherwise, despite a few attacking malfunctions in the first half, Ireland controlled possession, and tightened things up in the second half. Fittingly it was their pack and their maul which sealed the deal with their fourth try in the 69th minute.
Typical of the Irish display, Johnny Sexton didn't scale the superb attacking heights of the Welsh game – although he landed four from five. But there was still more than enough in his and their game to get the job done. Even when not at their best, they're a relentless machine. They must be horrible to play against.
Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Dan Leavy and CJ Stander put in exhausting stints, both with the ball and off it, while Garry Ringrose marked his return to the Test match fold with a superb, rangy, free-running game which, as usual, also saw some good reads and tackles in defence. Behind him, Rob Kearney was immense in the air, and Stockdale – again seizing the moments when they mattered – took his try tally to 10 in eight Tests.
Further underlining Ireland's strength in depth, there was impact of the bench, and none bigger than Jordi Murphy.
Rumours had circulated earlier in the week, and swirled around again yesterday morning, that Sexton had been struggling with back spasms and had a hamstring issue, but he took a full part in Friday's captain's run and in the warm-up. Ian Keatley was also there as cover, and John Ryan, Jack O'Donoghue and Fergus McFadden were the other additional players there.
As for the presidential greetings and triple salvo of anthems before the Welsh game, Sexton was the only Irish player to keep his tracksuit bottoms on, albeit all of the Scottish squad did likewise.
So we fretted again. Sexton made a good start, his first bomb from inside half-way coming down about a foot outside the Scottish 22, where Kearney's chase and jump forced a spillage from Finn Russell. With a penalty advantage, the leaping Keith Earls almost gathered Sexton's free cross-kick.
Surprisingly though, he and Rory Best turned down a likely three points by going to the corner, where a poor throw by the Irish captain ended the move.
Ireland were trying to vary the point of attack – a tip on by Best to James Ryan and Bundee Aki's quick transfer to Furlong when it looked he would truck it up – but the Scots defence was strong. Their quick line speed forced a tip on by Sexton to Kearney, which was wrongly adjudged forward, although had been picked off by Blair Kinghorn anyhow.
Kearney had more joy when chasing his own up-and-under, but Hamish Watson won a penalty turnover from a Furlong carry when Ringrose and Devin Toner couldn't shift the openside.
Sexton couldn't complete his attempted wraparound with Aki, the pass falling short, and Huw Jones hacked through, albeit after an undetected knock-on. When Earls was pinged for not realising after tidying up, Greig Laidlaw opened the scoring.
Ireland lost another lineout, and the Scots were also finding good distance on their kicks, notably one touch finder by Stuart Hogg, although he also missed a long penalty to touch, and another Irish attack broke down when Earls's pass looped over Stockdale into touch. But Dan Leavy, so hard to shift off the ball, won a trademark relieving turnover penalty.
Whereupon, the Scots got their attacking wires all wrong. Russell played the ball out the back to Peter Horne, whose intended skip pass – whether to Jones, whose line took him out of the game, or Kinghorn – was read and easily picked off by Stockdale. As he did with the last play against Wales, Stockdale ran in his ninth try in eight Tests untouched from half-way and Sexton converted.
At last Ireland's attack clicked with a clever, pre-planned switch off a scrum by Aki to the openside, which gave Ringrose the space to step Horne on his inside. The Scots were always looking for quick throws and a counter-attack, and after Sexton's quick throw enabled Conor Murray find touch, Russell took a quick throw to himself, and passed inside to Sean Maitland, who hit Jones on the left touchline. He chipped Earls, gathered, beat a man, drew the final defender but his left to right pass died in front of Hogg, who would have run in untouched under the posts.
It was the equivalent of a glaring open goal, and a warning to Ireland not to engage in a game of footloose and fancy rugby.
Scotland asked serious questions of the Irish defence again as they kept their shape and came hard on to the ball with good depth, as Laidlaw and Russell varied the point of attack.
By contrast, there was an edginess to Ireland's running game, and they lost their shape in attack as the Scots brought good line speed, energy and physicality to their defence, although they lost Ryan Wilson before the end of the first quarter. Sexton was grumpier than usual, understandably so.
When he again worked his wraparound, Peter O'Mahony wasn't in position to take the pass and so had to take the hit from John Barclay. Then, when Furlong passed off the base, Ryan knocked on, and Ireland were grateful for Scotland forcing it again.
The Scots had a lineout on half-way, but Ryan picked off the tap down at the tail, rumbled into the Scottish backs and offloaded to Best. It would prove a huge play. Sexton’s long flat skip pass off the recycle was flicked on by Ringrose to Kearney, who galloped up the left hand side, stepped inside rather than have Stockdale driven into touch in a small corridor outside him, and there, as ever, Murray was in support.
Although Murray was stopped just short of the line by the recovering Watson, from the resultant rock solid scrum Murray hit Ringrose, who used his footwork to get over the line. Two phases later, Ringrose worked a wraparound with Aki, who showed soft hands as a screen with Best, and Ringrose fed Stockdale, who stepped inside Kinghorn for a try in the corner with the 40 minutes up.
Sexton even nailed the touchline conversion for a 14-3 interval lead. Half-way to a bonus point. Given one of the tries was an intercept, and Scotland butchered a clear seven-pointer, that was altogether more satisfying, as well as a little flattering, for Ireland.
On the restart, O’Mahony hauled down Kinghorn from behind and bounced to his feet, latching onto the ball to win a turnover penalty. The sun came out, and Kearney superbly reclaimed a sliced Garryowen by Sexton. When Horne played the ball on the deck, again Ireland went to the corner.
This time it paid off.
From Ryan’s take, Ireland worked the ball to Best at the tail, and although the Scots held up the ball well, it had sucked in their pack. Murray took the ball, carried, swivelled in contact and helped by Aki, muscled through the weak tackles of Russell, Watson and Horne to score.
Even with Aki’s help, Murray had no right to score that try. As against Wales, 14 points either side of half-time. Championship minutes again. And Ireland were three quarters of the way towards a bonus point.
Again though, the game followed the pattern of the Welsh match in that as soon as Ireland looked to be in a comfy position, their defence out wide was found out. Initially, after good hands by Russell and Horne off a lineout maul, Hogg’s pass went above Kinghorn.
However, that was with a penalty advantage, and opting off a scrum in front of the posts, they outflanked the left-hand side of the Irish defence again with less space to work in. Horne, Hogg and Maitland all lined up in a direct line behind the scrum, before sprinting to the right as Laidlaw fed Russell, He pulled the ball back behind Horne’s decoy run to Hogg, who moved it on to Maitland, who showed Jones and Hogg how to do it, with a try-scoring pass for Kinghorn, on his full debut, to touch down smartly past Kearney’s attempted tackle. Laidlaw’s touchline conversion hit the upright.
With Jack McGrath already having replaced a wounded Cian Healy, Ireland responded by bringing on Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy, who gave real impetus to a 50-metre plus, 17-phase drive. There were some nice variations, such as Best swivelling and moving the ball on to McGrath when seemingly setting up a wraparound, before Kearney was worked into space.
But the next drive came to nought when Ringrose took up Murray’s flat pass but Kearney couldn’t shift Fraser Brown off the ball. The Scots were proving very stubborn, and Sexton missed a penalty for touch when going for distance with a narrow angle up the right.
But when Aki was finally used as a carrier rather than a distributor, David Denton was pinged for not rolling away. This time the on-field think tank opted for a penalty to make it a three-score game, but Sexton missed from about 35 metres well to the right.
Ringrose, having a big game, made a good up and out read when tackling Jones into touch inside half-way, and backed that up with another break. Scotland were finally done for creeping up in front of the hindmost foot and, with an easier kick, Ireland opted for the corner.
Seán Cronin, just on for his 51st cap off the bench, found Stander at the front, and it was such a strong drive that an outstretched Cronin just held on to one jersey before burrowing over for the bonus-point try, meaning England have to win with a bonus point in Paris to deny Ireland the title. Sexton converted for a 28-8 lead.
Scotland left another try behind when Tim Swinson fumbled in Leavy’s tackle short of the line after a multi-phase drive.
The Fields echoed around a highly satisfied Aviva Stadium, as Ireland preserved their 20-point winning margin and, in so doing, also extended their points differential to plus 69, a healthy 44 ahead of England.
To not win the title from here would actually now be a big disappointment, and, the way it’s panned out – Twickenham, St Paddy’s Day and all that. Ditto the Grand Slam.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 13 mins Laidlaw pen 0-3; 22 mins Stockdale try, Sexton con 7-3; 40 (+1) mins Stockdale try, Sexton con 14-3; (half-time 14-3); 46 mins Murray try, Sexton con 21-3; 53 mins Kinghorn try 21-8; 69 mins Cronin try, Sexton con 28-8.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster) (capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); James Ryan (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster); Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Dan Leavy (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).
Replacements: Jack McGrath (Leinster) for Healy (51 mins), Iain Henderson (Ulster) for Toner, Jordi Murphy (Leinster) for O'Mahony (both 55 mins), Andrew Porter (Leinster) for Furlong (62 mins), Seán Cronin (Leinster) for Best (66 mins), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), for Murray (70 mins), Joey Carbery (Leinster) for Sexton (73 mins), Jordan Larmour (Leinster) for Kearney (75 mins).
SCOTLAND: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors); Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh), Huw Jones (Glasgow Warriors), Peter Horne (Glasgow Warriors), Sean Maitland (Saracens); Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors), Greig Laidlaw (Clermont Auvergne); Gordon Reid (London Irish), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh); Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors); John Barclay (Scarlets, capt), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Replacements: David Denton (Worcester Warriors) for Wilson (18 mins), Lee Jones (Glasgow Warriors) for Kinghorn (29-38 mins), Jamie Bhatti (Glasgow Warriors) for Reid, Willem Nel (Edinburgh) for Berghan (both 55 mins), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors) for McInally (60 mins), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors) for Laidlaw (67 mins), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors) for Gray (70 mins), Nick Grigg (Glasgow Warriors) for Horne (73 mins).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand), Luke Pearce (England)
Television Match Official: George Ayoub (Australia)