Scotland made all the running, but its constant incursions into the Irish 22 produced nothing but frustration and heartbreak. Turnovers and penalties thwarted the adventurous Scots every time. Their best try chance came while trailing 13-6 in the third quarter. New captain Stuart Hogg, given an overlap in the left corner, only had to place the ball but inexplicably spilled it while he was trying.
Hogg apologized to his teammates. "It was a schoolboy error," he said. “I apologized to the boys and I need to move on. We got ourselves into some good positions after the forwards' hard work and effort and I'm bitterly disappointed.”
But coach Gregor Townsend was willing to forgive and ask Hogg to forget. “It's not like him,” Townsend said. "We had a number of other occasions close to the try line, whether it was the ball-carrier presenting the ball better, 50-50 decisions from the referee that didn’t go our way, or ourselves not getting speed to contact. They were as important as that incident.
“Stuart should flush that and move on because he was outstanding today, and has been a very good leader the last two weeks." Meanwhile, new Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton, playing his first match in eight weeks after tearing right knee ligaments, contributed all of his team's points with the game's only try and landed five out of six goalkicks. When his fourth penalty extended Ireland's lead to 19-12 with nine minutes to go, Sexton deserved to be rested.
But Scotland was far from done. Replacement hooker Stuart McInally steamed into a gap, and flanker Hamish Watson had the Irish scrambling back with three minutes to go. Willem Nel, Cornell du Preez and Scott Cummings tried to pound the ball in from rucks but the Irish defense was magnificent. Almost inevitably, Scotland conceded a penalty on the line and the Irish were slapping the back of CJ Stander. Up in the coaches box, new Ireland boss Andy Farrell and his assistants were fist-pumping and high-fiving.
But the Scots still weren't finished. They had a tap kick on the Irish 22 with two minutes to go, tried pick-and-goes, the clock passed 80 minutes, and a Scot was stripped of the ball by Josh van der Flier.
And Ireland could finally breathe easy. “It's a start,” Farrell said. “We asked the players all week to make sure they stand for something and, boy, did they stand for a bit of grit.” Finn Russell, Scotland's chief playmaker who walked out on the team last week, wasn't missed as flyhalf Adam Hastings played well and landed four of his five goalkicks. Hastings even knocked out new Irish No. 8 Caelan Doris in the opening minutes in an accidental clash of heads.
But after a bright start by the Scots which netted only three points, Ireland showed how to be accurate in the 22. After the forwards made hard yards, the backs cleverly made them count. With Scotland wary of another pick-and-go, scrumhalf Conor Murray threw a miss-out pass for Sexton to run in untouched. He became the 15th man to pass 800 test points. Sexton converted, and Ireland went back on defense.
“Johnny Sexton hasn't played for a long time and he goes out and puts in a performance like that,” Farrell marveled. “He's passionate about being captain of his country in the Six Nations for the first time. It was outstanding for him.”
With Scotland center Sam Johnson a handful, they reached halftime trailing only 10-6. But they were hurting mainly themselves by committing eight turnovers and conceding eight penalties. They also lost a couple of throw-ins to Iain Henderson.
“We should have put more points on the board,” Townsend said. “You've got to give credit to the Ireland defense. We'll be frustrated that we didn't take the opportunities, especially the clear ones that were there.”
The Irish continued to scrape by after halftime, except Sexton was gifted more shots closer to the posts, and he nailed all three penalty kicks. He kept Ireland's nose just in front and extended Scotland's 10-year losing run in Dublin.
Ireland is at home again next weekend against defending champion Wales, while Scotland return home to welcome title favorite England.
More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports