Keith Earls helps Ireland rally to defeat Scotland in Autumn Nations Cup | Sport

Ireland finished third in the Autumn Nations Cup having finished in the same position in the Six Nations. They were third-rate in the second half against Georgia last Sunday and were again in the opening half-hour at the Aviva Stadium against a team that combined power with panache to counter the argument that professional rugby has become boring.

The match turned when the Scotland centre Duncan Taylor, who had vexed Ireland’s defence with his strength in possession and ability to keep the ball alive, was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on. His action foiled Ireland’s first attack of note, a sweeping move along the right moving infield to give Ireland numbers on the left.

As Bundee Aki looked to exploit the overlap, his pass hit the outstretched right hand of Taylor and bounced forward. The referee, Matt Carley, viewed a replay of the incident before searching for his yellow card, but Taylor did not bring his hand downward and his action could have been perceived as an attempt to tackle his opposite number rather than cynically thwart a potential try.

Carley was not troubled by doubt and after Johnny Sexton had kicked the resulting penalty to make it 9-6 to the visitors, Scotland’s flame dimmed.

Rugby at the top level is going through an extended period where space is at a premium and acts such as deliberate knock-ons are not shown any mercy. But players who wilfully infringe at the breakdown to slow down ball or poach it have to commit any number of offences before being threatened with the sin-bin and it is rare for anyone to be penalised for not being behind the hindmost part of a teammate’s body at a ruck.

Cian Healy was penalised in the opening half, but only because he was in a position to shake hands with Scotland’s outside-half, Jaco van der Walt. Stealthy encroachment is connived at despite it giving the defending team the extra half-second it needs to rush up, close down space and induce the team in possession to kick. Why?

If Scotland could feel aggrieved at Taylor’s yellow card, their discipline again let them down. They conceded 14 penalties, their average in this tournament.

Two of Ireland’s three tries came after Sexton opted to kick penalties to touch rather than bank three points. The first was scored two minutes before the interval and as Carley played advantage for another infringement after Scotland had repelled the driving maul, Sexton was facing right when he chipped to the left and Robbie Henshaw tapped the ball back over the line for Keith Earls to beat Ali Price to the bounce.

It gave Ireland an 11-9 interval lead and Taylor had only just returned to the field in the opening minutes of the second half when Stuart Hogg, whose counterattacking thrusts in the first half defused Ireland’s kicking strategy, fumbled a rolling kick from Sexton, by now running the game, in his 22.

Ireland used the resulting scrum to launch a series of drives and after Caelan Doris had rampaged over the gainline, Healy twisted his way over.

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Ireland all but sealed victory after 49 minutes when Peter O’Mahony, who later had a try ruled out after his right boot grazed the touchline, gave Earls the space to score in the left corner with a pass Scotland complained was forward.

Duhan van der Merwe’s opportunism from a ruck gave Scotland renewed hope on an afternoon when all their points were scored by South Africans, but they continued to give away penalties with Jamie Ritchie, whose methods at the breakdown were questioned by Carley throughout, was warned after shouting advice at the referee.

He was protesting at a penalty conceded by Fraser Brown moments after the hooker complained he had been eye-gouged, an accusation a replay of a maul could not substantiate. Scotland had by then been blown off course having started so emphatically.

After the defeat to England and the lack of wit against Georgia, Ireland felt relief rather than redemption.

As Sexton pointed out they are behind England and France, who will visit Dublin in the Six Nations, but ahead of the chasing pack. “We back our coaches,” he said. “It is different from the previous regime and takes a bit of getting used to, but unlike the media, we are happy with our progress.”

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