Wales run out of time after being stunned by Ireland's early onslaught
Ireland wing Simon Zebo celebrates after scoring the first try during the Six Nations game between Wales and Ireland at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday. photograph: stu forster/getty images
Wales 22 Ireland 30:When Romain Poite signalled the end, Jamie Heaslip was the only Ireland player to raise his hands. In his first Six Nations game as captain, that was entirely understandable but one imagines that had the whistle come half an hour earlier his team-mates might have been inclined to celebrate more animatedly.
Then again, maybe they just didn’t have the energy to raise one arm, let alone both.
Whatever sense of elation they possessed had also, perhaps, been accompanied by a degree of deflation at allowing a position of comfort become decidedly twitchy. For sure, when a team gains momentum they can become very hard to stop, not least a Welsh side which has no option but to swing from the hip and throw the ball around. The risk-free, near hopelessness of their plight when trailing 30-3 early in the second-half gave them licence to do so and Wales had shown ‘previous’ here.
Two seasons ago they recovered from deficits of 21-9 with 25 minutes to go and 24-14 with just five minutes to go in their dramatic 31-24 win against Scotland.
They almost repeated the feat from 20-0 down at half-time against France a fortnight later. That also gives a team belief in their powers of recovery. Sam Warburton admitted to thinking of their comeback win over Scotland in 2010 and he wouldn’t have been the only Welsh player who did so, and the introduction of Justin Tipuric alongside him had a significant impact.
When a team loses momentum, it is almost impossible to regain it as if turning a tap back on. When Brian O’Driscoll dotted down for a 30-3 lead in the opening exchanges of the second-half, Ireland could perhaps be forgiven for thinking the job was done but they began kicking the ball back to Wales rather than retaining it.
In the infancy of his Test career, Craig Gilroy showed bravery and good judgment in rushing up from his wing to stymie Welsh overlaps and he ran dangerously, but his kicking invited Wales to run the ball back.
As Wales began going through the phases at a higher tempo, so Ireland struggled to maintain the quick defensive line speed they had shown in the first half, and ill-discipline at the breakdown cost them two yellow cards in reducing them to 14 men for half the second period, as well as losing the penalty count 13-8.
The loss of Gordon D’Arcy didn’t help, not least when Wales’ first try exposed Keith Earls in midfield and ultimately, Ireland were even a little indebted to Wales butchering a couple of two-on-ones, notably by Alex Cuthbert.
However, Ireland can also take considerable heart from the bravery they showed as Wales threw the kitchen sink and even the kitchen table at them in the last 35 minutes. As Declan Kidney pointed out afterwards, this is all the more true given five of the Irish 14 in that endgame had just a dozen caps between them going into this match.
No-one epitomised their resilience more than Sean O’Brien, who in addition to being Ireland’s leading carrier (12) was credited with 23 tackles in the official match stats and was followed by the two locks, Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan, who made a remarkable 34 tackles between them.
Jonny Sexton can’t have been far away. Even by the standards of a player who is now probably the best defensive outhalf around, he led the line up and continually put his body on the line with perfectly executed tackles, not least when it was all hands to the pump in the final quarter.
Then too, and all the way through, O’Driscoll was also as brave as ever, and repeatedly pushed up to nail man and ball.
Once he forced a vital turnover by slapping the arm of Mike Phillips to force a spillage which McCarthy alertly gobbled up on the floor and in addition to him pouncing for what proved to be the match-clinching third try, the way he exploited the gap created by Rob Kearney’s decoy to deliver the try-scoring pass behind George North for Simon Zebo’s opener was sublime.
Zebo’s backheeled, volleyed flick on the run to gather Jamie Heaslip’s pass from Rory best’s chargedown, catch and pass will be hard to eclipse for skilful moment of the tournament, and it also led to Cian Healy’s touchdown.
Besides, building up a big lead in the first-half is usually more productive and rewarding, as well as a sign of being better coached and better prepared.
When Ireland were in full flow, which had been for much of the first 45 minutes, Sexton was the one pulling the strings, as the Irish countered the Welsh rush defence with greater depth to go around them. Bright, positive and full of energy and variation – as they went back to the blind side with success – Ireland’s rugby might have yielded even further reward, notably when Leigh Halfpenny, who had a fine game, stopped Gilroy by the corner, after Ireland had outflanked their defence again.
Aside from everything else, Sexton’s goalkicking was also superb, so much so that ultimately his haul of six from six, for 15 points, meant Wales didn’t come within a score of winning the game.
Cracking opening to the tournament as it was, from an Irish perspective that would have been too much to take.