Heaven's bread for Wales as Irish feast on crumbs

 

Ireland 21 Wales 23:AS ANTI-CLIMACTIC starts go, this was Ireland’s worst for some time. Rather than take the momentum from an opening day win into Paris next Saturday with the good feel of redemption for events in Wellington, they suffered a third successive defeat to the Welsh for the first time since 1979. Worse still, their performance didn’t merit much better.

Prior to last night’s Superbowl, this, too, was largely won on the line of scrimmage, or the gain line. Having a 9kg advantage per man in the backline, Wales carried into contact and recycled far more comfortably for much of the day. They also carried with more depth and width and shape and sense of purpose, and had the game’s most potent backs in George North and Jonathan Davies.

Even in the pre-match preamble the Welsh seemed to be hitting the tackle bags harder and singing their anthem with more emotion, and how Ireland led 10-5 at the break was almost inexplicable. The first quarter and beyond belonged to Wales as they ran hard at a strangely passive and narrow Irish defence and recycled almost at will.

Though Ireland were at home and the team supposedly on a revenge mission, all the fire and fury was initially Welsh. More to the point, so too was the shape in attack and confidence in what they were about.

In response to an early Jonathan Sexton penalty, they were pounding at the Irish line through loads of phases and the often defensively-isolated Tommy Bowe was probably fortunate to escape a yellow card for slapping down the ball to deny the Welsh a three-man overlap and probably try.

The Welsh were again denied after North rumbled through Jamie Heaslip before the TMO ruled that Rory Best and Donncha O’Callaghan had done enough to deny Ryan Jones a touchdown.

But the inevitable duly came to pass as Wales continually explored a narrow side where Bowe was imploring for re-enforcements, as Priestland availed of the 5-2 match-up by running at Mike Ross and drawing in Bowe to give Jonathan Davies a one-handed, around-the-corner try-scoring pass.

Bread of Heaven already echoed around the Aviva before giving way to the oohs which accompanied the outhalf hitting the upright with the touchline conversion as happened again, more improbably, with a fairly straight 25-metre penalty soon after.

Save for a Kearney take and a couple of lineout steals by O’Connell and Heaslip, Ireland lived off scraps until a combined choke tackle by O’Callaghan and Stephen Ferris ignited them.

Ferris, Murray, Seán O’Brien and Heaslip began running hard at the fringe and midfield defence, and nice hands by the halves and especially Gordon D’Arcy enabled Bowe to run inside North and put the hard-working Rory Best over. Sexton landed a fine conversion for the 10-5 interval lead.

Even the home crowd seemed palpably surprised.

Wales would also lose Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert at half-time, Heaslip choke tackling the latter’s replacement, James Hook, in the build-up to Sexton making it 13-5 after the restart. But after Priestland had shanked a third kick, Leigh Halfpenny made it a one-score game again after McFadden had been pinged for not rolling away.

Worse followed when Bowe’s failure to gather a kick over his head by Jonathan Davies was punished fully from the ensuing Welsh lineout. From off the top ball at the tail via Jason Tipuric, North came in off his blindside wing to bump Fergus McFadden in the tackle and then brilliantly offloaded under-arm for Jonathan Davies to score. Halfpenny converted for the lead.

A difficult angled penalty by Sexton on the hour restored the lead and Donnacha Ryan’s impact off the bench was swift and considerable, as first Davies incurred his yellow and then Ryan promptly stole a Welsh lineout inside the visitors’ 22 for the big carriers to pound at the Welsh line.

Off slow ball, Sexton held his depth and used D’Arcy’s decoy runner for Kearney to hit the line and enable Bowe to score in the corner with a long flat pass.

Sexton couldn’t nail the touchline conversion, and Ireland opted for a 52-metre effort by him rather than give the ball to Kearney (an under-used long-range penalty taker) or go up the line. Sexton was wide and Ireland’s game management became no better even though O’Connell brilliantly claimed the restart, as O’Brien was isolated in midfield off the recycle for a turnover penalty won by Jason Tipuric, a like-for-like genuine openside replacement for Sam Warburton.

This moment was arguably the winning and the losing of the match.

Wales went up the line and again brought North up the midfield channels as he ran over Sexton and carried on into contact with O’Brien. Two phases later Ian Evans ran through O’Connell of all people, and as they went wide – everyone coming onto the ball straight and with depth – North ran through Bowe and took D’Arcy’s tackle to score.

Although Halfpenny missed the touchline conversion, entering the last three minutes Wales took the ensuing restart inside their own 22 and with a mite too much ease carried into contact and recycled about a dozen times in inching their way remorselessly into the Irish 10-metre line. Whereupon Ferris was adjudged to have tip-tackled Evans and driven him into the turf.

There was little doubt that Halfpenny would nail the 30-metre penalty, and Gatland admitted he should have eased the pressure on the returning Priestland by giving Halfpenny the kicking duties from the start.

In their moment of crisis Ireland had turned to O’Gara, but even his overcooked restart couldn’t afford O’Connell any chance of sparking a winning drop goal drive; Priestland instead hoofing the ball into the stands.

The boos rang out around the ground, but eventually they would give way to Welsh cheers.

It was their day, it would be their night and, on balance, ++++deservedly so.

SCORING SEQUENCE: 4 mins: Sexton pen 3-0; 14: J Davies try 3-5; 37: Best try, Sexton con 10-5. Half-time 10-5. 43: Sexton pen 13-5; 54: Halfpenny pen 13-8; 55: J Davies try, Halfpenny con 13-15; 60: Sexton pen 16-15; 69: Bowe try 21-15; 76: North try 21-20; 80: Halfpenny pen 21-23.

IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), F McFadden (Leinster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster); C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), P O’Connell (Munster, capt), S Ferris (Ulster), S O’Brien (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: D Ryan (Munster) for O’Callaghan (63 mins), T Court (Ulster) for Healy (74 mins), E Reddan (Leinster) for Murray, R O’Gara (Munster) for Sexton (both 77 mins). Not used: S Cronin (Leinster), P O’Mahony (Munster), D Kearney (Leinster). Sin-binned: S Ferris.

WALES: L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), G North (Scarlets); R Priestland (Scarlets), M Phillips (Bayonee); R Gill (Saracens), H Bennett (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), I Evans (Ospreys), R Jones (Ospreys), S Warburton (Cardiff blues, capt), T Faletau (Dragons). Replacements: J Tipuric (Ospreys) for Warburton, J Hook (Perpignan) for Cuthbert (both half-time), P James (Ospreys) for A Jones (70 mins). Not used: K Owens (Scarlets), A Powell (Sale Sharks), L Williams (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Scarlets). Sin-binned: B Davies (65-75 mins).

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).