By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN – Ireland clinched their first Triple Crown in four years on Saturday with a 26-5 victory over Scotland that kept the Six Nations championship alive for a few hours, until France completed the Grand Slam against England in Paris.
While Ireland were not at their very best, a first clean sweep of their “home nation” rivals in four years looked rarely in doubt after first half tries from front rows Dan Sheehan and Cian Healy and a third on the hour from Josh van der Flier.
Replacement scrumhalf Conor Murray’s last-gasp bonus point try meant France had to win in Paris to secure their first title in 12 years and left Ireland “for the first time ever” cheering on arch rivals England, captain Johnny Sexton said.
“I don’t think it was perfect by any means, we did just enough but exactly what we wanted to do,” Sexton said before the team watched the France game over dinner.
With nothing to lose, fourth placed Scotland came flying out of the blocks and provided a few early reminders of just how dangerous they can be with ball in hand. Still, it was Ireland’s more controlled attack that struck first.
Man of the match Sheehan, who is Leinster’s joint-top try scorer this season with seven tries in eight appearances, most of them off the bench, made it two in seven for Ireland when he finished off a period of persistent Irish dominance.
Ireland relentlessly went after more scoreboard pressure – as they so often do once they get in front – and another wave of forward play yielded a second try for the front row, this time for Healy on his 116th Ireland appearance.
Scotland’s efforts were rewarded five minutes from the break when prop Pierre Schoeman powered over for his first international try and only the fourth Ireland had conceded all tournament.
Blair Kinghorn, in for regular flyhalf Finn Russell, missed the easy conversion and captain Stuart Hogg coughed up an even better chance to cut the 14-5 deficit early in the second half when he opted to go for the corner rather than pass inside, only to be stopped by a superb tackle from opposite number Hugo Keenan.
Ireland had plenty of possession with little to show for it until Van der Flier, one of the most consistent performers in Andy Farrell’s ever improving side, accelerated over to make it a much more comfortable 16 point lead with 20 minutes to go.
The extra point looked like it was slipping away until Scotland were reduced to 14 men before the last play of the game when winger James Lowe was powered on by his teammates and popped a basketball pass back inside for Murray to score.
Ireland celebrated as if it was the game-winning try and while the title proved a step too far after defeat in Paris last month, the second-placed Irish finished with more than twice the number of points of any other team.