Scotland will never have a better chance of upsetting the odds in Dublin as they enjoyed the best of the scoring chances against Ireland but missed them all, including one that will haunt skipper Stuart Hogg for as long as he plays.
The new Scotland captain fumbled the ball as he went to touch down in the corner for a certain try for the Scots midway through the second half, but that was only one of a host of missed opportunities for the men in dark blue.
They were turned over with holding-on penalties three times at the Irish line and there were also two knock-ons in promising attacking situations.
Taking just one of those chances would probably have got the Scots their first positive result in Ireland since 2010, and they’ll feel this was a huge opportunity missed against an Irish team that after scoring a good first half try never really threatened much as an attacking force when Garry Ringrose went off at half-time.
The Scots will need to look at their breakdown play where Ireland won too much contested ball, but this was a far better performance than many had expected after the disruption in the build-up.
Adam Hastings had a decent if not outstanding game at 10 in his first Six Nations start, there were huge shifts from Jamie Ritchie, Hamish Watson, Zander Fagerson and Scott Cummings.
Sam Johnson was the best of Scotland’s backs, and although Hogg had a strong game in his first game as captain, that uncharacteristic blunder was a real sore one for him.
Scotland were sure to rue a host of missed territorial opportunities in a first half when they had the edge on the Irish but ended four points behind.
The Scots’ intent to play fast and attacking rugby was clear in the opening five minutes, an early chance to get skipper Hogg and new capo Haining into the game floundering on a turnover by Ireland’s new man Caelan Doris in the 22.
Undaunted, Scotland tried again and Hogg’s jinking run past three defenders forced a penalty, with Doris taking a head knock and leaving the field as Adam Hastings kicked Scotland in front.
However Garry Ringrose got outside Huw Jones on Ireland’s first real possession and Scotland conceded a penalty in retreat, which the home side kicked to the corner.
They worked their trademark ferocious play close to the opposition line, but smartly dummied it away from the contact area for Connor Murray to feed Sexton who ran it in too easily against a splintered and confused Scottish defence.
The Irish captain converted but Scotland hit back almost immediately when Cian Healy was penalised at the game’s first scrum, and Hastings kicked the penalty.
The Scots enjoyed several chances in the next 20 minutes to take the lead, but Ireland’s power defence near their line and some poor execution by Scotland meant they all went begging.
A rushed lineout after a fine Hogg touchfinder as the Scots forwards seemed confused about their call ended in a knock-on, then after losing another lineout just outside the 22, Hastings’ smart cross kick causing havoc in the Irish defence was wasted when the Scots moves off the back of the lineout ended with O’Mahony, on for Doris, stealing possession right on the line.
Then smart work by Maitland forced an Irish fumble in their own 22, but the wing couldn’t hold on as the Scots tried a number of intricate attacking moves in the shadow of the Irish posts and another great chance was lost.
Hastings was wide right with a tough penalty chance wide from the left, and instead of taking what would have been a deserved lead Scotland went further behind when Ali Price was a little too quick at a ruck to snare Murray, and Sexton kicked his first penalty from 30 metres.
However the Irish skipper missed his second penalty attempt just before half-time, and there was another chance missed for Scotland when Sam Johnson’s intercept was carried into the 22 by Hastings, but once again Ireland forced a holding on penalty with their backs to their own line.
Ireland came out with added resolve, and Sexton stretched their lead with a penalty as the Scots scrambled in defence.
Scotland nearly hit back when Jones darted into a gap but Larmour intercepted his offload aimed at Haining.
But that was the prelude to Scotland’s worst missed chance of all, as Johnson stepped inside tacklers and they finally had numbers on the wide outside but Hogg fumbled the ball as he went to touch down for the try with no tackler impeding him.
A penalty given earlier in the move allowed Hastings to bring it back to 13-9, but it was an awful moment for the Scots captain.
The Scots quickly conceded a penalty back to Sexton straight in front of the posts and although Hastings got it to 16-12 when Price almost broke away from a ruck, Ireland got the seven point gap again when Conway was impeded going for a high Sexton kick, much to the fury of the Scots.
Scotland kept coming, and there was just time for another huge missed opportunity after replacement Stuart McInally broke through and Hamish Watson carried into the 22. The Scots were a bit too one-dimensional trying to batter through at the line and again were penalised for holding on.
Ireland: J Larmour; A Conway, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (capt), C Murray; C Healy, R Herring, T Furlong; I Henderson, J Ryan; CJ Stander, J van der Flier, C Doris
Replacements: R Kelleher for Herring 73, A Porter for Healy 66, D Toner for Henderson 68, P O’Mahony for Doris 5, J Cooney for Murray 60, R Byrne for Sexton 73, R Henshaw for Ringrose 40.
Scotland: S Hogg; S Maitland, H Jones, S Johnson, B Kinghorn; A Hastings, A Price; R Sutherland, F Brown, Z Fagerson; S Cummings, J Gray; J Ritchie, H Watson, N Haining.
Replacements: S McInally for Brown 57, A Dell for Sutherland 65, WP Nel for Fagerson 74, B Toolis for Gray 65, C Du Preez for Haining 74, G Horne for Price 65, R Hutchinson for Johnson 74, C Harris for Jones 65.
Ref: M Raynal (Fra)