By Lawrence White
LONDON (Reuters) - After a poor start to the 2021 Six Nations for Ireland, their determined win against Scotland on Sunday will have fans dreaming of the side's 2018 form, when a relentless green-machine ground down all comers.
The 2018 Grand Slam-winning Ireland were built on set piece dominance, controlled phase play and the match-winning temperament of Johnny Sexton, all of which were on display on Sunday albeit only in patches.
The 35-year-old Sexton indicated he would keep playing, amid speculation among fans as to how long he could continue to imprint his will to win on a side whose form has risen and fallen with him over the years.
"What are my aspirations? Keep on winning, hopefully ... I’ll see how I feel this time next year," he said after guiding his team to a 27-24 win over Scotland.
"I’m really enjoying my rugby, I’m enjoying the coaching in the Irish set-up and at Leinster. I am excited to go to training every day," he said.
Ireland's win showed glimpses of their best qualities in recent years, namely set piece accuracy, sharp kicking and the ability to grind out phase after phase of attacking play.
The lineout jumping trio of James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson were particularly effective, ripping the Scottish set piece apart.
"It’s huge, we feel like we are building on something, and getting a win for us today is massive going forward," Beirne said.
Young replacement Ryan Baird showed Ireland's depth in the pack, charging down a 75th-minute kick to halt Scotland's attempt at a late winner.
Coach Andy Farrell hailed his side's resilience and determination.
"To hold them out like we were doing for so long...and they get the try... to have the composure and the reset mindset to go again, and come up with a special play from young Ryan the blockage, get the turnover ball, and kick the goal... to take the win here by three points, we'll certainly take that," he said.
Ireland have no hope of winning this year's Six Nations, but the return to form of some key players is a sign that they are on an upward trajectory.
Alongside Sexton their other talismanic leader of the last decade, arch pacesetting scrum half Conor Murray, was an unused substitute on Sunday.
Farrell said this was due to his being among several backs carrying injuries into the game and that nothing should be read into Jamison Gibson-Park being on for the full 80 minutes.
(Reporting By Lawrence White, editing by Pritha Sarkar)