SCOTLAND knew they would need to produce a high-quality 80-minute performance if they were going to win a first Triple Crown in 23 years and stay in contention for the Six Nations title itself.

In the end, they fell well short, with the only real consolation on an anti-climactic afternoon being the fact they became the first team in this year’s Championship to deny Ireland a bonus point.

Not that that should prevent the Irish from winning the title on Saturday. They are four points clear at the top, and will relish taking on an England team who may well take some time to get over their record defeat by France two days ago.

The French should beat Wales earlier in the day to keep up a semblance of pressure on Ireland, but Andy Farrell’s team are thoroughly accustomed to coping with that by now.

Scotland, meanwhile, will play Italy, knowing a big win and a French defeat without a bonus point could give them a second-placed finish. But that is a long shot.

The reality, surely, is that they are the third-best team in the tournament – no disgrace, but well short of the high hopes that were evident when they won their first two matches for the first time in 26 years.

Gregor Townsend’s team were only 8-7 behind at half time, and gave almost as good as they got for the first 15 minutes after the break. But the pressure steadily increased on them from that point, and when Ireland scored two tries either side of the hour, there was no way back.

It was a fiercely-fought first half, in which Richie Gray went off injured early and was followed by three Irishmen before the half hour.

The visitors thought they had opened the scoring when they won a Scotland line-out and Dan Sheehan touched down two phases later, but the referee chalked the score off as Scotland had thrown in with the long ball.

The opening score was only delayed, however, and it came after 12 minutes through a Johnny Sexton penalty.

Scotland responded swiftly, and Huw Jones touched down from a pass by Glasgow team-mate Sione Tuipulotu. Finn Russell’s conversion made it 7-3.

Tuipulotu went on to have an impressive game in attack, but too few of his colleagues came close to emulating him. Ireland, on the other hand, continued to play at a consistently high level.

They regained the lead through a Mack Hansen try in the right corner, with replays showing that the winger had just touched down before being tackled into touch by Duhan van der Merwe.

Sexton missed the conversion, but the Irish defence coped solidly with the home side’s attempts to score again in what remained of the half, which ended with the visitors holding on to that 8-7 advantage.

The opening 15 minutes in the second half may have looked uneventful because they did not produce a single score. In retrospect, however, that was a crucial stage of the game, in which Ireland steadily turned the screw, and Scotland began to creak under the pressure.

In the end, that pressure told when the home defence were too slow to get to a high ball midway inside their own half. Hansen got there, though, leaping almost unopposed, starting an attack that ended with James Lowe touching down in the left corner. Sexton converted to make it 15-7.

Five minutes later, replacement back-row forward Jack Conan got Ireland’s third try. Hansen played a vital role in the scoring move by coming off his wing, and Conan comfortably had the strength to hold off Van der Merwe on his way over the line.

Sexton added the two points again to make it 22-7, and with quarter-of- an-hour left the game was all but won.

Ireland kept pressing for a time in search of the fourth, bonus-point try, but their momentum was disrupted by a lengthy break while Garry Ringrose was treated on the pitch before being stretchered off.

They still had chances to score after that, notably just three minutes from time when Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park combined in an attack down the left to send James Ryan clear. The lock looked like having the legs to get to the line, but he was tackled short and passed forward in his bid to keep the move alive.

Scotland had run out of ideas by that time, and finished up looking shadows of the side that had beaten England and Wales. They could do with an injection of energy and inspiration before facing the Italians, and Townsend may well decide that the best way of doing that is by making more than the two changes he made to his starting line-up for this game.

Scorers, Scotland – Try: Jones. Con: Russell.

Ireland – Tries: Hansen, Lowe, Conan. Cons: Sexton 2. Pen: Sexton.

Scotland: S Hogg (B Kinghorn 65); K Steyn, S Tuipulotu, H Jones, D van der Merwe; F Russell (C Harris 80), B White (A Price 59); P Schoeman (J Bhatti 54), G Turner (F Brown 59), Z Fagerson (S Berghan 54), R Gray (S Cummings 7), J Gray, M Fagerson (H Watson 67), J Ritchie (captain), J Dempsey.

Ireland: H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose (B Aki 73), B Aki (R Henshaw 67), J Lowe; J Sexton (R Byrne 72), C Murray (J Gibson-Park 54); A Porter, D Sheehan (R Kelleher 19, C Healy 49), T Furlong (T O’Toole 65), I Henderson (R Baird 25), J Ryan, P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, C Doris (J Conan 13).

Referee: L Pearce (England).

Attendance: 67,144.