Narrowest of defeats leaves Scots with bitter aftertaste

FRUSTRATION and bitter disappointment were the prevalent feelings among Scotland players and coaches after this exciting see-saw encounter ended in the narrowest of defeats on Saturday.

But how different it was for the wider public in Scotland, thousands of whom had entered Murrayfield on Saturday hoping for an entertaining spectacle, but fearing a drubbing for a Scottish side reeling from the miserable 20-point loss to Italy. Scotland had lost by 22 points to England; Ireland had just beaten England by 30. Could the Scots pick themselves up sufficiently to compete with a nation now setting its sights on a World Cup final?

They did, and no matter how critical the coaches were of the performance in its technical purity afterwards, the players earned plaudits for the effort they put into a game to bring relief to Scottish rugby. These 80 minutes put into the shadows the disparity between the nations' current standings, and restored faith that the gap between a Scotland side ranked 10th in the world and fifth-placed Ireland is not as great as had seemed.

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The test of beating this most enterprising and experienced of Irish teams hinged on stopping Brian O'Driscoll's side from playing, something no team had effectively managed, even France, this year. Yet, such are the vagaries of international rugby, the Scots found it easier than envisaged; the hosts started tentatively, some tackles were missed, some passes dropped, the scrum did well and the lineout reasonably, but Scotland were in pole position, leading 18-13 with only 15 minutes of the game remaining.

Ireland were remarkable 1-6 favourites to win this game, so how were the bookies so nearly confounded? Two reasons stand out: Scotland's steely desire to regain pride, most palpable at the breakdown area and in the players' committed running, and Ireland's inability to find their rhythm. How much one contributed to the other is difficult to gauge, but while the Irish were guilty of too many errors and rare indiscipline the Scots caused problems with simple unstinting rugby.

Simon Taylor, the Scottish blindside flanker, led his younger back rows Dave Callam and Kelly Brown with real fortitude; Murray and Nathan Hines combined solidly in the tight and loose, and the front row took the game to Ireland with terrific resolve.

After an edgy opening, Chris Cusiter played with greater aplomb than in recent weeks, battling back well from the horrors of the Italy match. While Dan Parks repeated the fatal error of his rival Phil Godman against Italy in following through with a planned kick when Ronan O'Gara was almost on top of him, so gifting the Irishman the game's solitary try in the defining moment of the match, the Glasgow fly-half otherwise directed Scotland's attack very well, mostly, as expected, with the boot.

Rob Dewey was well guarded but still asked questions of the Irish midfield, and though he missed too many tackles, some occurred when he was moved to outside centre in the final quarter. Sean Lamont seemed buoyed by the introduction of his brother Rory at half-time, a replacement for Hugo Southwell, and the brothers were lively figures in the second half. Southwell had also underlined the courage in the side with some great tackles and good kick-and-chases, but he was injured driving bravely for a try when a pass to Chris Paterson might have worked.

There was no surprise that Ireland had the game's top ball-carriers - Gordon D'Arcy, Denis Leamy, the No 8, Brian O'Driscoll, blindside Simon Easterby and lock Paul O'Connell - nor that Scottish flankers Taylor and Brown made the most tackles. That much was expected, and while the Irishmen made more ground than the Scots wished with pick-and-drives, crucially none created tries for a team that had crossed the line eight times in the previous three games.

That is a credit to the hosts' scrambling defence, the highlight of which came six minutes after the break when Sean Lamont's crashing cover tackle denied Hickie a certain try in the left-hand corner. This Scottish team possesses neither Ireland's ball-carrying talent nor the pace and craft in the backs, which was why the visitors made six line-breaks - five early on - and the Scots managed it just once. Again, Sean Lamont offered that hope, when, after 24 minutes, he launched a trademark counter-attack from deep and carved through a scattered Ireland defence, before feeding Paterson. The Scotland captain came on to the pass at full speed in an electric burst but was caught by Hickie, 20 metres from the posts.

The Scots won more possession in the second half and hope increased when Hines returned from ten minutes in the sin-bin - for slowing ruck ball - to find that rather than it costing Scotland points, Paterson had cut the deficit in his absence to just 13-12. The majestic goal-kicker added two more from penalties earned as much by stirring Scottish build-up play as Irish indiscretions.

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Where the difference between the sides showed, however, was in that final 15 minutes. Ireland drew on their experience, defending well, holding Scottish tacklers into rucks on the ground to win penalties and then exhorting referee Dave Pearson to penalise Taylor for lazy running, which allowed O'Gara to nudge his side back in front.

The stand-off missed another chance and Scottish optimism rose again as the team worked feverishly to get into position for a late drop-goal attempt for Parks or Paterson, but the Irish were too clever and they finished the game going nowhere, but far from their own posts.

This was better from Scotland, but Hadden, the Scotland head coach, was in no mood for excuses or talk of glorious failures. He insisted: "Ireland were there for the beating, but we didn't do enough or perform with enough accuracy or precision to get a grip of the game.

"Obviously, if we had happened to be in front at the end of the game we would have accepted the win, but we would still be disappointed. But we see it as a missed opportunity against the second-best side in the world to give the sort of quality performance of which we are capable."

In similar vein, Paterson added: "If we'd won the game we'd still have been unhappy because we didn't impose the strengths of our game on Ireland - the passing wasn't great, we didn't create space in attack.

There wasn't enough spark in the game and for us because we need to play quicker and more open rugby, which we'll attempt to do in Paris."

Scotland must take the positives from this game in order to step up again to the biggest test of a gruelling 2007 championship - France bidding to recover from a Grand Slam disappointment by securing another Six Nations title in front of their own supporters.

The ultimate Scottish challenge is finding consistency, and any team wishing to make an impact at the World Cup has to have mastered the art of stringing decent performances together. If the same determination, spirit and courage can be produced in Paris on Saturday, with greater accuracy and fewer mistakes, then this Scotland team will start to convince that there is better to come.

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Scorers. Scotland: Pens: Paterson 6. Ireland: Try: O'Gara. Pens: O'Gara 4. Con: O'Gara.

Scotland: H Southwell; S Lamont, M Di Rollo, R Dewey, C Paterson; D Parks, C Cusiter; G Kerr, D Hall, E Murray, N Hines, S Murray, S Taylor, D Callam, K Brown. Subs: R Lamont for Southwell 40min, A Hogg for Callam 53, R Lawson for Cusiter 57, R Ford for Hall 60, A Jacobsen for Kerr 60, A Henderson for Di Rollo 65, J Hamilton for Murray 76.

Ireland: G Dempsey; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, D Hickie; R O'Gara, P Stringer; S Best, R Best, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell, S Easterby, D Leamy, D Wallace. Subs: J Flannery for R Best 60, N Best for Easterby 67.