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Monday 11 December 2017

Spirited Ireland claim Six Nations title after day of high drama

Ireland captain Paul O'Connell with the Six Nations Trophy (left), as Jamie Heaslip sprays his team with champagne as Ireland win the Six Nations at Murrayfield Stadium at the end of the 2015 RBS Six Nations match at the BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh
Ireland captain Paul O'Connell with the Six Nations Trophy (left), as Jamie Heaslip sprays his team with champagne as Ireland win the Six Nations at Murrayfield Stadium at the end of the 2015 RBS Six Nations match at the BT Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh

Ireland tiptoed their way to successive RBS 6 Nations titles for the first time since 1949, sneaking past England on points-difference after beating Scotland 40-10.

Joe Schmidt's men ended Wales' title bid with their four-try triumph at Murrayfield, before biting their fingernails to the quick while cheering on France in their Twickenham clash against England.

Ireland set England the challenge of beating France by a 26-point margin to claim the title - Stuart Lancaster's men did prevail against Les Bleus, but came up six points short owing to a 55-35 scoreline that sent the title to Dublin.

Captain Paul O'Connell set Ireland on their way with his first Test try in nine years, before Sean O'Brien's brace and a further score from Jared Payne wrapped up a fourth victory in the campaign.

Wales had kept their title claims alive earlier on Saturday by thrashing Italy 61-20 in Rome, as the Six Nations went down to a points-difference scrap for another year.

Ireland secured victory by greater than 20 points however, to overshadow Wales' cushion and set England that 26-point target for glory in the final game of Saturday's triple-header.

Should two teams share the same points-difference, the title would be decided on tries scored - England already led Ireland on that front 11 to eight, so only needed to level the Irish's points buffer.

Ireland's victory condemned Scotland to their 33rd Wooden Spoon, and their third tournament whitewash in 11 years, despite a first Test try for Finn Russell.

Johnny Sexton missed two gilt-edged penalty chances to move Ireland into a commanding points-difference lead in the second half as the nerves hit home.

The Racing Metro man recovered his poise to deliver from the tee however, before O'Brien's second score sealed a victory sufficient to heap the pressure on England.

Replacement Ian Madigan also missed a last-gasp shot at goal - meaning Ireland let nine points go begging in Edinburgh.

Robbie Henshaw was unable to cap Tommy Bowe's fine break with a score from the off, but Ireland kept the move alive and after several tight phases O'Connell sneaked round a ruck to claim the try.

The veteran Munster lock became Ireland's oldest-ever try-scorer in the process, at 35 years and 152 days, easily surpassing Fred Gardiner's 34 years and 293 days in scoring against France in March 1909.

Ireland sustained the attacking impetus, with Sexton adding a penalty to his conversion to extend the visitors' lead to 10-0.

Scotland stymied Ireland's points drive however, grinding their way to a foothold in the contest before captain Greig Laidlaw slotted a penalty.

Payne was fortunate to avoid a yellow card for his aerial challenge on Adam Ashe but the penalty allowed Scotland further possession and territory.

Rory Best won a fine turnover penalty however, before Henshaw and Luke Fitzgerald combined to good effect once more.

And when Devin Toner took a lineout at the tail, flanker O'Brien raced around the back and beat Scotland's scant cover to claim the second try.

The Leinster loose-forward's first Test score since November 2013 cemented Ireland's dominance in an understandably loose contest.

Rob Kearney misjudged a clever grubber, flailing at the loose ball to allow Stuart Hogg to sneak in - and from the next phase fly-half Russell raced over for his first Test score.

Sexton converted a scrum penalty, though, to put his side 20-10 to the good at half-time.

Ireland laid siege to Scotland's whitewash after the restart, but settled for a penalty from which Sexton pushed their lead to 13.

Ireland hardly had to wait for their third try, Ulster centre Payne crashing over on a hard cut-back line.

Schmidt's men destroyed Scotland in the scrum, Henshaw powered over the gain-line after the penalty lineout and Payne delivered from midfield.

Tactical kicking put Ireland back on the attack, and when Scotland killed the ball all too cheaply Sexton had a routine chance to secure the coveted buffer from the tee.

The dependable fly-half inexplicably struck the right-hand post however, leaving Ireland still one point shy of edging ahead of Wales on points difference.

Prop Geoff Cross was then sin-binned as referee Jerome Garces lost patience with Scotland's continued infringements but Sexton again failed to convert from the tee, nerves clearly wracking his normally-assured goal-kicking.

Sexton had his third chance and finally recovered his nerve and Ireland moved 33-10 ahead just past the hour thanks to Sexton's fourth penalty, before O'Brien's second try stretched that advantage.

Hogg dropped the ball in the act of attempting to score for Scotland in a late let-off for the Irish.

Madigan had the chance to stretch the lead still further with a final shot at goal, but dragged his effort wide.

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