Having toppled the All Blacks in Chicago three months ago, Ireland went into the opening match of this year’s Six Nations hoping to recapture the form that saw it win the tournament in 2014 and 2015.
Instead, to the delight of Murrayfield, Scotland secured its first opening day Six Nations victory since 2006, courtesy of Greig Laidlaw’s efficient kicking and two early tries from man of the match Stuart Hogg.
“It’s quite a nice feeling to be honest,” Scotland head coach Vern Cotter told reporters, after his side successfully fought-off an Irish comeback to win 27-22.
“We dominated the first half and they dominated the second half, but there was composure at the end and we managed to get what we wanted.”
Cotter had admitted in the build-up he could “feel a nervousness” in his squad, but Scotland started with verve and no shortage of attacking intent, buoyed by the Murrayfield faithful in the winter sunshine.
And, when the ball was swept right to Hogg, last year’s Player of the Championship made no mistake, collecting the ball on the bounce and crossing the line.
Laidlaw did well to convert, defying strong Edinburgh winds to establish a seven-point lead.
That had been Scotland’s first real foray forward, but Hogg was soon at it again, scoring a second, nonchalantly selling a dummy on the left before bursting through once more.
In doing so, the Glasgow Warriors star became Scotland’s record try scorer at the Six Nations.
“They scored seemingly every time they touched the ball at one point,” Ireland captain Rory Best lamented after the game.
‘Over the moon’
A missed interception from winger Tommy Seymour allowed Ireland’s Keith Earls to get one back, though Paddy Jackson missed with the conversion.
If the momentum seemed to be swinging in Ireland’s favor, Scotland clearly hadn’t read the script.
Some cute play from hooker Ross Ford found center Alex Dunbar in a move straight from the training ground and after a third consecutive conversion from Laidlaw — Scotland had a 21-5 lead, despite just 41% of possession.
Slowly but surely Ireland began to chip away at Scotland’s lead. The visitors second try was all about the sheer power of Iain Henderson, as the second row bundled over the line, with Jackson converting to make it 21-15.
With the Irish forwards playing an increasingly important role, the comeback gathered further momentum as Jackson gave Ireland a one-point lead.
But the Scotland players dug deep and, with Laidlaw kicking perfectly, only needed a penalty to reestablish the lead at the death.
“Vern Cotter sat us down and said we’re going to win it because we’re bloody-minded and we did that today,” smiled Laidlaw. “Absolutely over the moon.”
Scotland moved to top of the table, while Ireland picked up the competition’s first ever bonus point for losing by fewer than seven points.
England wins ‘ugly’
Defending champion England went into Saturday’s second match looking to make history of its own.
Beginning this Six Nations campaign on the back of 14 victories in a row, Eddie Jones’ men had a chance to set a new national record, and move one step closer to New Zealand’s all-time tally of 18 consecutive Test wins set only last year.
There was less welcome history for France, which hadn’t won a Six Nations game at Twickenham since 2005.
France started the better, as three penalties from the left-footed Camille Lopez gave them a 6-9 half-time lead.
Elliot Daly thought he had given England the lead in the second period after mercurial work from George Ford put Owen Farrell through with acres of space, but video replays eventually showed Noa Nakaitaci had forced him out of play.
Instead it was French substitute Rabah Slimani who finished a brilliant move on the hour, crossing right under the posts.
Lopez converted to give France a 16-12 lead, and with England’s creative players struggling to find their rhythm, Jones opted for raw power.
The strategy quickly worked, with substitute Ben Te’o — just minutes after coming on — barging through for a try on his Six Nations debut.
“It can’t get much uglier than that,” Jones admitted, having seen his players hold on to clinch a 19-16 win in a dour affair, fraught with errors and dominated by the forwards.
“For some reason we sat back in the first half, and we weren’t our usual urgent selves. Sometimes these things happen; it is a game of rugby and there are humans involved.”
“Plenty of credit has to go to our finishers,” added England captain Dylan Hartley, acknowledging the decisive impact of the the home team’s substitutions.
“Everyone on the field added something to the performance. We dug in, we got the win and we’ll take something from that.
“This keeps us grounded and ready for next week. We’ll have to be a lot better when we play Wales.”
Jones continues to boast a 100% Six Nations win record, while France pick up a bonus point.
Should England complete the Grand Slam this year, New Zealand’s record will be broken; as Jones put it, “It’s still ugly but the result’s beautiful.”