Rory Best marked his first Six Nations match as captain with a try as Ireland overcame Scotland for their second victory in this year’s Championship.
Declan Kidney’s men outscored the visitors by four tries to one with stand-in skipper Rory Best, Eoin Reddan, Andrew Trimble and replacement Fergus McFadden all touched down.
Jonathan Sexton kicked the remaining 12 points to move him through the 200-point barrier in international rugby, on an evening when Ireland registered back-to-back wins at the Aviva Stadium for the first time.
Scotland’s giant lock Richie Gray charged over for a try approaching half-time, but Trimble struck back at the other end in injury-time to give the home side a 22-14 buffer.
The second period only came to life in the closing quarter when Sexton added a penalty and McFadden dived over from a ruck under the posts, after Scottish centre Max Evans had been sin-binned.
The names of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell were both missing from the Ireland teamsheet for the first time in a Six Nations match since 2001’s win over Italy.
Donnacha Ryan, O’Connell’s deputy in the second row, admitted he had ‘big shoes to fill’, but the Tipperary man was prominent throughout and such was his performance that he was announced as the RBS man-of-the-match on his first Championship start.
A hamstring injury forced Nick De Luca’s late withdrawal from the Scottish back-line, bringing Max Evans into the starting line-up and Edinburgh’s Matt Scott took the vacant spot on the bench.
The first half took a while to catch fire, with two early penalties from Greig Laidlaw punishing Irish ruck infringements and moving the Scots 6-0 ahead.
Ireland were on the defensive for much of the opening quarter – Stephen Ferris and Peter O’Mahony, making his first start in green, put in some muscular tackles – and the visitors enjoyed a decent platform of possession.
Ferris and O’Mahony held up John Barclay to force an Irish scrum in an advanced position and when a penalty was won in the next phase, there was a statement of intent when Best shunned a kick at the posts.
Sexton set up a lineout in the left corner and a move straight off the training ground duly teed up Best for a 14th minute try.
The hooker threw in to Ryan who quickly transferred the ball to Donncha O’Callaghan on the ground, he fed a charging O’Mahony and the young flanker’s well-timed pass sent Best blasting over in the corner past Mike Blair.
Television match official Giulio De Santis confirmed the grounding of Best’s seventh international try, and Sexton drew the conversion over from close to the touchline.
Scotland went through the phases from the restart, but strong defensive work from Ferris and centres Keith Earls and Gordon D’Arcy sent the blue shirts backwards.
Despite limited possession, Ireland continually got over the gain-line as their attack began to click. O’Mahony, Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy relished the opportunity to test out of the Scottish defence around the fringes.
Ireland’s strength in the scrum was also a growing factor and Sexton punished Allan Jacobsen by firing over a 26th minute penalty for a 10-6 lead.
Laidlaw clawed three points back for Scotland after a clever kick through from Ross Rennie had to be cleared up by the covering Best. Ireland also had to defend a couple of mauls near their try-line.
In the 33rd minute, the men in green hit back with their second try from Reddan. Heaslip and Healy barged up into the 22 from the restart and the scrum half, from a close-in ruck, wormed away from Blair and Sean Lamont’s attempted tackles and also avoided David Denton’s grasp on the way to the whitewash.
Sexton’s conversion stretched Ireland’s advantage to 11 points, only for the momentum to swing again soon after.
The Scots got on the front foot before Gray hit the line at pace, fending off Reddan and Tommy Bowe and dummying past Rob Kearney on a terrific 35-metre burst which earned him his first Test score.
The conversion attempt from Laidlaw came back off the left hand post, and although time was not on their side Ireland managed to close out the first half’s scoring in thrilling fashion.
Direct running from Earls, Ryan and Kearney gave the home side the penetration required and Trimble sliced past Lee Jones to score in the corner with fellow Ulsterman Ferris providing the assist.
Sexton missed the conversion to leave the half-time margin at 22-14, and that is how it stayed until Kidney’s charges got the scoreboard moving again in the final ten minutes.
The early part of the second half saw Scotland advancing towards the Irish 22, but inventive play from Sexton and Trimble unleashed Earls for an eye-catching run towards halfway.
Carries from O’Callaghan and Heaslip took Ireland back into the Scottish 22 and Denton was whistled up for a ruck offence.
As Scotland regrouped expecting a shot at the posts, Sexton sent a cross-field kick over to the right where Bowe lurked.
The Monaghan native soared to claim the ball, but Graeme Morrison wrapped him up in the tackle and Bowe’s attempted grounding on the try-line was ruled out by De Santis.
There was plenty of movement on the Irish bench closing in on the hour mark, with Tom Court coming on as a blood sub and half-backs Ronan O’Gara and Tomas O’Leary and hooker Sean Cronin all being introduced.
Just a few days after his 35th birthday, O’Gara came on to win his 120th cap and take over the captaincy from Best. With D’Arcy making way, Sexton switched into the inside centre berth.
A tigerish turnover from O’Mahony, who turned in an all-action display, was one of the few highlights in a stop-start third quarter.
There was a lengthy injury stoppage for Scotland’s Lee Jones, who was stretchered off after an unfortunate clash of heads with Trimble as the visitors strung together some promising phases.
A medical update issued on Sunday said that Jones is ‘making good progress following the head injury he sustained yesterday and may be released from hospital later today.’
When play resumed, Ireland’s lead was still just eight points and they needed an extra spark to sew up the result. The front five provided it by winning a penalty from a scrum and Cronin was propelled forward on the end of a well-orchestrated maul.
Scotland survived the first wave, but having been pinned back in their own half they could not hold out. An advancing Irish scrum, with Mike Ross to the fore, led to Sexton knocking over his second penalty with a smashing kick from the left.
Worse followed for the Scots as Kearney cut through on a tremendous counter attacking run. He passed for Earls who was impeded by Evans as he chased his own kick near the right touchline.
The Scottish centre pleaded his innocence but referee Chris Pollock reached for his yellow card after consulting with assistant Greg Garner.
With the Irish scrum in dominant form, the Scots leaked successive penalties and then McFadden, with only his second touch, showed great awareness to burrow over for his try despite the presence of two defenders.
Sexton converted to put 18 points between the sides, and the subsequent introduction of Mike McCarthy saw the Connacht forward make his Six Nations bow.
The Irish management will undoubtedly be pleased that the fresh legs of Cronin and Court, who helped win a last-minute scrum against the head, and try scorer McFadden inspired a strong finish from the hosts.