Scotland endured a difficult afternoon in Dublin as they were defeated 31-16 in their final Autumn Nations Cup match.
The final weekend of the Autumn Nations Cup arrived, with Ireland and Scotland contesting the third place play-off, at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately for Scotland, it was another frustrating encounter against their Celtic neighbours as they were defeated 31-16. Edinburgh winger Darcy Graham returned to the side and lined up with fellow flyer Duhan van de Merwe to complete the back line with captain Stuart Hogg, who was set to make his 80th Scotland cap. Meanwhile, it was an international debut for Jaco van der Walt, who replaced Duncan Weir, and there was the long-awaited return of Duncan Taylor at inside centre.
Despite the history books being against them, Scotland started with more intensity and drive than we had seen throughout the tournament. The first few minutes saw Jonny Sexton kick wide before Scotland put the first points on the scoreboard by van der Walt, who would later kick 11 points. Scotland continued to attack with high tempo, which ultimately rewarded them with a deserving lead after 25 minutes. Yet, the ferocious opening first half by the Scots resulted in no tries for the visitors. The familiarity of handling errors and ill-discipline soon crept back, culminating in the sin-binning of Taylor for a deliberate knock-on before the break. This was perhaps a marginal call, but ultimately proved to be the turning point in the match.
With Scotland down to 14 men, this allowed Ireland to reduce their deficit on the score-board. With two minutes to go before half-time, the hosts were given an advantage before Sexton kicked a high ball. Keith Earls touched the ball down after Darcy Graham failed to collect it, which meant Earls became Ireland’s second leading try-scorer with 32. At the interval, the Scots were dominant, yet behind 11-9.
By contrast, after a highly encouraging first half, Scotland lost control almost immediately after the break. Two quick scores in the first ten minutes from Earls and Cian Healy extended Ireland’s lead and put them in a comfortable position. Celebrations were soon cut short when van de Merwe picked up the ball from the ruck and sprinted for the try-line. This injected some much-needed confidence into the Scotland side and briefly raised hopes for a comeback.
Despite Taylor coming back on from his sin-bin, Scotland couldn’t recover any of the momentum they had previously built up in the first half. The yellow-carding, combined with a monumental penalty count, was the root cause of Scotland’s ultimate demise. The visitor’s soon ran out of steam when Brown gave away two more penalties, allowing Ireland to extend their lead with a further three points. The hosts then looked as though they had scored a fourth try, but it was ruled out after van de Merwe had managed to get Peter O’Mahony’s foot in touch. Ireland then turned the screw and kicked another three points to finish the game as deserving winners.
Despite his clear frustration at the big penalty count, head coach Gregor Townsend left some words of encouragement after the final whistle: “We’re a work in progress,” he said. “I thought the first 35 minutes was some of the best rugby we’ve played all year and that was probably above expectations given it was a new team today.”
Scotland finished in fourth place in the Autumn Nations Cup, above Wales and Italy who later battled for fifth place that same afternoon. On a positive note, debutant Jaco van der Walt looked very comfortable at international rugby level and will be one to watch next year. Gregor Townsend’s men will have to work on their ill-discipline and infringement count if they want to get back on a winning streak. Meanwhile, Ireland have now won nine of their last ten matches against Scotland, with a 22-27 defeat at BT Murrayfield in 2017 being the only exception in this run.