Scotland kicked off their 2017 Six Nations campaign with a stunning 27-22 win over Ireland at Murrayfield.
Saturday’s win marked the first time since 2006 that Scotland had won a Six Nations opener as a brace from Stuart Hogg and an opportunistic try from Alex Dunbar was enough to stave off the challenge of a resurgent Ireland who mounted a compelling second-half comeback after trailing 21-8 at halftime.
The match was hailed as the best Six Nations opener in history in some quarters but it still produced its winners and losers as Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes were dashed in the opening round.
A 27-22 win naturally puts Scotland in the winners circle but Saturday’s win was a really significant victory for Scottish Rugby. Scotland entered the 2017 Six Nations with more optimism than they have in any other Six Nations campaign before, and although their pre-tournament confidence irked the ire of some, most notably Ronan O’Gara, they still delivered in a big way against one of the tournament’s lead contenders and a side that they had only beaten three times in the last 16 Six Nations championships before Saturday.
Scottish Rugby is benefiting from the core nucleus of a very strong Glasgow Warriors side and finally that nucleus has been able to transfer their strong performances at club level to the international stage.
2. Vern Cotter
With the exception of the Italy job, Vern Cotter took on one of the hardest jobs in world rugby when he left the comforts of Clermont for the challenge of turning around Scottish Rugby in 2014.
Scotland had been floundering in mediocrity for over a decade before Cotter arrived, and while their record has not been much better under the New Zealander than some of their previous coaches since his appointment, Scott Johnson withstanding, Scotland have been getting closer, pushing Australia to the brink, twice, and posting statement wins over France and Argentina in Murrayfield.
However, Saturday’s win was the biggest of Cotter’s tenure as Scotland coach and was also his first victory over friend and Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
The two shared a brief moment after the game as they prepared for their post-match interviews, and while publicly Cotter was very humble and modest in victory, privately you have to assume he was only delighted he was finally able to get one over his highly praised compatriot.
3. Stuart Hogg
Hogg was the pre-six Nations consensus pick to start at fullback during the British & Irish Lions first Test against New Zealand this summer and those claims have only been strengthened by his performance on Saturday.
Hogg was sensational for Scotland. The Glasgow fullback danced his way around Garry Ringrose for Scotland’s first score and blazed his through the Irish defence for his second try of the game soon after, leaving Keith Earls in his wake and Rob Kearney in a haze, as he raced his way towards the try line.
Hogg has been Scotland’s standout player for a number of seasons now and on Saturday he showed exactly why he’s held in such a high regard.
4. Jonny Gray
For the longest time he was Richie’s younger brother, but Jonny Gray has quietly been ticking away as one of the world’s most underrated second-rowers.
The 22-year-old has been impressing fans and pundits alike for a number of seasons now with Glasgow, but he is still relatively unknown compared to some of world rugby’s more vaunted second-rowers.
Saturday’s performance may have boosted his profile among more casual fans, and if it didn’t, it certainly should, as Gray was immense against Ireland.
The bulking lock’s 28 tackles and 14 carries were team high’s in both categories and played a pivotal part in Scotland holding off a fast finishing Ireland.
Scotland had a lot of stars on Saturday but Gray was among their very brightest.
5. The Six Nations
For all the strides and improvements the Champions Cup has made over the last few years, it just doesn’t stack up in comparison to the Six Nations.
There’s something about the importance of every game in the Six Nations that is often very hard to replicate in any other sporting competition. Each game is vitally important to a side’s tournament aspirations, and as evidenced on Saturday, Ireland’s championship goals are severely altered now as a result of their loss.
Saturday’s opener between Scotland and Ireland was an enthralling contest that was in the balance until the very last kick of the game. Not every game will live up to the quality of Saturday’s contest, but it was a blatant reminder to us all that the stakes are higher in the Six Nations than most other competitions and that usually makes for a better viewing experience overall, even if hearts often palpitate and television remotes are thrown around with a much greater disregard than househoulds are typically accustomed to.
1. Garry Ringrose
The Ireland centre has made massive strides this season for Leinster but his first Six Nations start against Scotland was a day to forget.
The 22-year-old got off to a shaky start by misjudging his timing on Stuart Hogg’s first try and he never really bounced back from there.
His support play was disjointed, he never ran with the same type of freedom that he so often displays with Leinster, and he just looked nervous.
Ringrose has a very bright future with Ireland, and he wasn’t the only Irish player to disappoint on Saturday, but he’s had much better days than the afternoon he endured against Scotland.
2. Iain Henderson
Like Ringorse, Henderson has an extremely bright future ahead of him but on Saturday he was undeniably disappointing.
He struggled with his line-out jumping early on and didn’t have the all-round impact that Joe Schmidt would have been hoping for, as he ran just six times for a measly two metres and made eight tackles in defence, nearly half the amount of second-row partner Devin Toner who had 15 tackles.
It was hoped on Saturday that Henderson could act as an extra backrower but in reality he had a difficult enough time performing his duties as a lock. His consistency is an issue but he has enough talent to still play a pivotal role in the rest of Ireland’s campaign.
3. Scotland’s Scrum
Losing Alaisdair Dickinson and WP Nel certainly didn’t help their cause, but Scotland’s scrum was a glaring weakness against Ireland as Jack McGrath and Tadgh Furlong dominated the inexperienced duo of Allan Dell and Zander Fagerson.
Fagerson and Dell have just seven international caps between them, and it showed, against what is arguably the best front-row in world rugby at the moment.
With Dickinson and Nel both sidelined for the forseeable future, Scotland will need to address their scrummaging woes, as if they don’t, teams will ruthlessly target their scrum as an area they can and will exploit.
4. Ireland’s Line-out
A traditional weapon and strength under Joe Schmidt, Ireland’s line-out was a disaster against Scotland in both attack and defence
The Gray brothers, Richie and Jonny, certainly did their best to disrupt, but Ireland’s only two failed throws of the afternoon both led to Scottish scores.
Furthermore, Ireland failed to stop Alex Dunbar from crashing over after the Scotland centre nabbed a short line-out from Ross Ford before extending Scotland’s lead to 21-5.
5. Ireland’s Slow Start
Ireland started the game off reasonably well but after Stuart Hogg crossed for Scotland’s first score Joe Schmidt’s side seemed shellshocked.
Ireland’s line-out was shaky, their highly vaunted backrow was nullified and Scotland dictated proceedings with direct running, astute kicking and intricate passing in the wider channels.
Ireland were much better in the second-half but they were undoubtedly punished for their sloppiness in the opening forty minutes, and although they recovered and ultimately lost the game down the stretch, they were outsmarted and outplayed in the first-half and it made their task a lot more difficult than it should have been, which inevitably was mountainous at halftime.
Scotland were the better side on the day but Ireland definitely shot themselves in the foot with a very poor start.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena