Johnny Sexton’s nerveless late penalty handed Ireland a dramatic 27-24 victory over Scotland in Edinburgh to end their hosts’ slim hopes of winning the Guinness Six Nations title.
To seal their first Championship title since 1999, Scotland needed to win their final three games and get help from elsewhere but instead narrowly came out on the wrong side of an enthralling encounter at BT Murrayfield.
They had fought back from 14 points down with 20 minutes left to level the score at 24-24 thanks to tries from Huw Jones and Hamish Watson before immediately conceding a penalty that Sexton converted from near the left touchline for the win.
The Ireland No.10 kicked brilliantly, slotting 17 points in addition to Robbie Henshaw and Tadhg Beirne’s tries, while Finn Russell crossed for Scotland’s first-half try in bizarre circumstances.
The victory extends Ireland’s impressive recent record over Scotland to six straight wins in all competitions and 17 triumphs in the last 20 Championship fixtures between the sides.
And while their chances of winning the title may be over, it also lifts Andy Farrell’s men to second in the table ahead of an intriguing Super Saturday clash with England.
IRELAND FLY OUT OF THE BLOCKS
Ireland started quickly as a spell of pressure in the 22 ended with Sexton slotting a simple penalty when Russell was pinged in front of the posts before they stretched the lead to 8-0 on eight minutes.
Sexton boomed a cross-field kick high into the Edinburgh air that Keith Earls contested in the in-goal area with two Scottish defenders and the ball bounced backwards where Henshaw was on hand to ground it for a try.
Sexton’s conversion hitting the upright was the only blot on his copybook in the first ten minutes but the hosts finally got a foothold when Tadhg Furlong was penalised and Russell kicked the three points.
Furlong got some measure of revenge when the prop showed the feet of a winger to neatly sidestep the Scotland No.10 but the hosts began to control the territory battle and took the lead just before the half-hour mark with one of the most bizarre Guinness Six Nations tries for a long time.
Stuart Hogg charged down an attempted clearance on the left flank and, after the ball had ricocheted up into his own face from his first grubber, the Scotland skipper successfully kicked infield where Russell booted the ball on further, it looped up off the covering James Lowe’s hand and Russell was able to collect for the dot down.
Ireland didn’t lick their wounds at that misfortune however as they went straight on the attack to earn three more points from Sexton’s boot and, after Russell was off target with a penalty of his own, the Ireland fly-half slotted another on the stroke of half-time for a 14-10 lead.
A physical start to the second half, full of crunching hits, eventually saw Ireland earn a five-metre lineout, go through the phases and Beirne managed to burrow over the line from close range.
Sexton added the conversion and a fourth penalty shortly after, when Jamie Ritchie was caught on the wrong side of a ruck, leaving Scotland 14 points adrift heading into the final quarter.
But they got themselves right back into the contest when Jones, who had only just come on to the field as a replacement, ran a nice line off a Hogg pass, slipped between Lowe and Hugo Keenan and cut inside to power over the line.
Hogg’s conversion moved them within a score at 24-17 and, with ten minutes to go, they set up camp in the Ireland 22. After multiple phases and penalty advantages, Watson eventually lunged for the line, spun on to his back and reached over his head to dot down.
Hogg again kicked the conversion to level proceedings at 24-24 and set up a grandstand final six minutes.
Having fought their way back, Scotland almost immediately made a mistake as Ali Price was pinged for a penalty wide on the left and Sexton curved his penalty just inside the left upright.
Scotland desperately pushed for a final score of their own to snatch a draw from the jaws of defeat but Ireland held firm for a memorable win.
MOMENT OF THE MATCH
It has to be Sexton’s late penalty that sealed the victory for Ireland. The 35-year-old has more than a decade of international experience to call upon and used every bit of it to hold his nerve.
Having just seen a 14-point lead slip through their fingers, Ireland could easily have been shell-shocked but instead went straight back on the attack, forced a mistake in the Scotland 22 and saw Price pinged.
Near the left touchline, the penalty was far from a gimme and initially it looked as if Sexton had pushed his attempt wide but it curved just inside the left post and handed Ireland a triumph to savour.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH
It could easily have been Sexton for not only his kicking from the tee but also his controlling of the game from No.10. However, it was Tadhg Beirne who was named Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match.
The back-rower used his considerable strength to score an all-important try just after half-time but it was his all-round play that really contributed to him earning the gong.
He was a relentless diesel engine around the park – hitting rucks with regularity and completing all six of his attempted tackles while also contributing in attack with six tough carries for 29 metres and completing two offloads.