The Ireland Club team (sponsored by Ulster Bank) missed the chance to reclaim the Dalriada Cup when going down 35-26 to their Scottish counterparts in Galashiels tonight, writes Gavin Harper.
26-23 losers of the first match in Athlone three weeks ago, the fired-up Scotland side scored three tries in 10 first half minutes to take control of this return leg, each member of their front row going over while Ireland's Matt D'Arcy was in the sin-bin.
The men in green, coached by Morgan Lennon and Johne Murphy, produced an improved second half display and scored three tries of their own, but a sluggish opening 40 minutes ultimately gave them too big a mountain to climb.
The Ireland Club XV showed some good touches early on at Netherdale but struggled to win their won ball at the scrum, and Scotland built more phases inside the Irish 22 which eventually yielded the first points through Craig Jackson's penalty, levelling the Dalriada Cup aggregate scoreline.
Ireland's first chance with ball in hand came from the set piece and D'Arcy cut through the Scottish defence, before full-back Eamonn Mills jinked his way around the tackle of Jordan Edmunds, but a promising move was halted when the visitors infringed at the breakdown.
Discipline was costing Lennon's men, with a succession of penalties inside the Scottish half resulting in a yellow card for Clontarf centre D'Arcy on 25 minutes. Jackson duly doubled the Scottish lead to 6-0 with the penalty kick, and straight from the restart, the hosts went further in front with the game's first try.
Scotland captain Fraser Thomson broke the line and linked with Charlie Shiel, who was dragged down thanks to a wonderful tackle by Daniel McEvoy. However, Scotland recycled and prop Shawn Muir burrowed over. Jackson missed the conversion, but 14-man Ireland were 11-0 behind with half-time looming.
They found themselves further behind when Muir's prop colleague Steven Longwell rounded off a sweeping team move to score the Scots' second try. Out-half Jackson converted, and not long after, Scotland scored a third through hooker Russell Anderson. He went over from a maul that started just inside the Ireland 22. The conversion was missed, but the hosts' lead was a very healthy 23-0 at the break.
A reinvigorated Irish side started the second half superbly, and they hit back with their first try when D'Arcy went in under the posts. Mills' initial break through the Scottish midfield did the damage, allowing the 'Tarf ace to finish well and pull a try back. Captain Neil Cronin converted to cut the gap to 16 points.
And a second seven-pointer quickly followed, Lansdowne's Mills was again the provider as his pace took him outside the Scottish defence, and he took off to go 70 metres up the touchline before finding his club-mate McEvoy, who showed great strength to score in the corner. Cronin kicked a superb touchline conversion to bring Ireland right back into the match.
McEvoy then nearly turned provider, as he beat the tackle of Rob McAlpine to ghost through, but skipper Cronin failed to hold a likely scoring pass. Crucially, Scotland were able to wrestle back control of the match with their fourth try on 55 minutes.
They spun the ball wide and captain Fraser Thomson went through before sending the scoring pass out to winger Craig Gossman who restored their 14-point lead. No sooner had Angus Lloyd come on than he was scampering through a huge gap in the Scotland defence, only to be denied by his opposing scrum half Shiel with the try-line beckoning.
A healthy Irish support did not have long to wait for a response, replacement hooker Paddy Finlay driving over from a maul for his side''s third score of the third quarter. With Cronin replaced, his Garryowen club-mate Jamie Gavin added the conversion to cut the gap to seven on the night, and four on aggregate.
However, just as they had done following the visitors' previous try, the Scotland Clubs hit back immediately and skipper Thomson got on the scoresheet after good hands from Ross Curle and Gossman down the blindside. Replacement Jamie Forbes converted to make it a 14-point game again – 35-21 – heading into the final quarter of an hour.
McEvoy put down an interception opportunity with five minutes left on the clock, but Ireland did grab another try in the final minute when Dublin University clubman Finlay piled over from a maul with Scotland down to 13 men. The hosts had lost winger Gossman and replacement prop Struan Cessford to the bin for repeated infringements inside their 22.
Referee: Robert Price (Wales)