Scotland vs. Ireland: Winners and Losers from 2015 Six Nations Clash
Ireland have given themselves every chance of retaining the Six Nations crown after emerging with a 40-10 victory over Scotland on Saturday.
Joe Schmidt's side returned to the top of the Six Nations standings after managing to topple the points-difference advantage Wales had assembled with a 61-20 win over Italy earlier on Saturday.
It was far from a perfect display as far as Ireland will be concerned, but the result was the most important thing, followed by a points haul that at least gives them a chance at winning a second Six Nations in a row.
Read on for discussion of the biggest winners and losers from the Edinburgh clash, with attention now turning to England's tie opposite France at Twickenham.
Winner: Boys in Green Breathe Life into Title Ambitions
At 2:30 p.m. GMT on Saturday, Ireland's chances of retaining the Six Nations looked slim. Wales' 41-point victory over Italy had put them in the driver's seat, and the Irish had lost on both of their last two trips to Murrayfield.
Schmidt's message to his players won't have changed in light of the Welsh win: Play your brand of rugby, win the game first and chase the points second. A brace of Sean O'Brien tries certainly helped them do just that.
That's precisely the game plan that panned out in the Scottish capital, and although England still have a fine chance at taking the title, Ireland have done all they can to at least revive their chances of a successful defence.
It was only in the second half that Ireland enforced a grip over territory and possession on Saturday, winning the turnover count and maintaining the discipline that's already made them so effective this year.
A tense couple of hours await until Schmidt and his troops watch matters unravel in London, but the fact that their campaign is alive at all speaks highly of their class under pressure.
Loser: Irish Profligacy
It took Ireland just five minutes to score the first try at Murrayfield on Saturday as captain Paul O'Connell rumbled over to lay down a swift marker of intent.
However, a 20-10 lead at the half-time interval could have been so much more had the travelling team not contributed as many mistakes in the opening 40 minutes, both in their half and the opponent's.
Fortunately for Schmidt's side, the Irish were making more yardage per carry as the field opened up ahead of them, but it was once again a lack of finishing ability in the final third that disappointed.
What's more, mistakes in midfield prevented the Irish from building a head of steam, and Johnny Sexton was once again at the centre of several lapses in concentration, both passing and kicking.
At their optimum, Ireland are among the most creative and attractive teams in the world to watch, but their ratio of chances made to chances created makes for less impressive reading.
Winner: Stuart Hogg's Saving Grace
Stuart Hogg is both blessed and cursed as a Scottish talisman, undoubtedly delighted to be among his side's best players—if not the best—but all too often shouldering far too heavy a burden.
Not for the first time in this championship, the full-back was at the heart of several lung-busting attempts to save his team's skin, coming out with an admirable degree of success.
Whether it was tracking back to spoil a Tommy Bowe chance on the try line or scrapping to make last-ditch tackle after last-ditch tackle, the 22-year-old was ever-present.
Yet again, the Scottish team looked to their man at the back for numerous moments of salvation; if they had 15 men of his quality, they'd be a global force to be reckoned with.
Loser: George Hook
Jared Payne may not have been sensational in his first few performances as the supposed successor to Brian O'Driscoll, but there were some who took major offence to George Hook's labelling of the centre as a "second-rate foreign player."
The RTE pundit made the comments in light of last Saturday's defeat to Wales, to which Schmidt responded with a stern defence of his No. 13, per Simon Lewis of the Irish Examiner:
I’m not a patient man. I’m not going to say we’re being patient about it, but we have to be a little bit tolerant of the development that needs to take place.
For us, I was incredibly disappointed with one of the so-called pundits slating one of our midfield last weekend when I thought he’d played a good game and I thought he actually opened them up.
He made a couple of line breaks and was dead solid defensively.
That sort of thing, when we’re trying to build confidence in players, filters back to players through family and friends and I don’t think it helps.
I don’t think it’s accurate, it’s one of those unfortunate by-products of having people for entertainment value as opposed to people who are a little bit more in-depth in their analysis as the other two pundits were.
If Payne was unaware of the criticism, he took to the Scottish defence like a man motivated to disprove the comments regardless, opening stride in arguably his best international display yet.
The New Zealander's 49th-minute score was apt execution of a finely drilled manoeuvre, while his work in supplying both Bowe and Fitzgerald with good ammunition was also at a premium for periods.
It's fitting that Payne's Edinburgh emergence should also come on the day of Hook's retirement, with Payne coming out of his shell to give the Irish commentator reason to think twice on his assessment of the Kiwi's ability.
Winner: Sean O'Brien Highlights His Importance
The "Tullow Tank" ran like a well-oiled machine on Saturday, and if ever there were a doubt as to what Sean O'Brien brings to this Ireland team, he did his part in laying down a reminder at Murrayfield.
His two tries account for a quarter of Ireland's total points haul, and the flanker effectively led his side to a record-equalling victory in Scottish territory, keeping alive Irish hopes of claiming the Six Nations crown.
Neither of O'Brien's tries were gimme scores, either. Both were feats of pace and strength that only one as well-conditioned as the Leinster man could manage, fine examples of why he's among the best in the world at what he does.
Seven defenders beaten in two clean breaks for 76 carrying metres and a couple of turnovers to boot: These are the statistics of a man driven to push his country to silverware.
The Man of the Match award was recognition for all O'Brien's hard graft getting back to this stage after numerous injury setbacks, taking no time at all to make his return to the elite of world rugby.
All statistics come courtesy of ESPN Scrum.