Wales 10 Ireland 34
Ireland’s 2023 Guinness Six Nations campaign has the required momentum from the opening day. This professional, clinical and fast start wavered for a time, but Ireland had the determination to keep a typical Welsh revival at bay and the strength of character to even secure a bonus point at their Six Nations bogey ground over the previous decade.
As Ireland roared into a commanding and decisive 27-3 lead at half-time, the Welsh rally had echoes of Ireland’s last Six Nations win here – Simon Zebo’s flick with his left heel and a 23-3 lead ultimately becoming an edgy 30-22 victory.
This was altogether more commanding, and while Ireland would ultimately not win another game and Wales would recover to win the title, there are two chances of history repeating itself, and “slim” left town a long while ago.
Acceding to having the roof closed, Ireland seamlessly recovered from the losses of Tadhg Furlong and Ronan Kelleher during the week as well as Jamison Gibson-Park and Cian Healy on the morning of the game. Despite the rousing Welsh anthems, the home team and crowd alike were becalmed almost immediately.
By the 10th minute The Fields could be heard from most corners of this Cardiff cauldron, as by then Ireland’s whirl of options off the ball, running angles, variety, execution and ruthlessness had already drawn the lines in the sand. Tries came by the outstanding duo of Caelan Doris and James Ryan, who typified Ireland’s dominance of the collisions and the gain line, before James Lowe’s intercept try all but extinguished Welsh hopes of a miraculously swift revival under Warren Gatland.
The volume and quality of Doris’ work, barring one knock-on in contact, was outstanding. He was Ireland’s leading tackler with 18 (and none missed) and joint leading carrier with 11 (for 27 metres) as well as winning an important turnover. Ryan was joint second tackler with 14 and none missed along with Josh van der Flier, and made one vital steal at a close-range line-out.
Credit to Finlay Bealham, whose skills, scrummaging and tackle count (13) made light of Tadgh Furlong’s absence, while there were also try-saving interventions by Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose and Andrew Porter in big shifts.
Dan Sheehan had a typically monumental game, augmenting a 100% return from his darts with some high-octane carrying and that extraordinary footwork for a big man. Indeed, another stand-out feature of the game was the superior footwork of the Irish ball carriers.
Twice Mack Hansen offloaded for Sheehan on the right wing and twice the hooker threatened to beat two or three men for winger-like finishes before van der Flier’s try sealed the deal.
As Andy Farrell succinctly put it: “Well, it’s actually ridiculous, isn’t it, that you’re thinking he’s going to score with probably three coming across and it’s your hooker. But the interaction there and the invention of what Mack was doing with his offloading, his awareness of who was around him, was pretty special to watch.
“He’s fit as a fiddle isn’t he? Yeah, he’s playing some good rugby at this moment in time.”
Operating behind front-foot ball, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton immediately settled into their old groove, pulling the strings in the build-up to both early tries before, admittedly, the concession of 11 second-half penalties and some loose kicking stemmed the Irish tide.
Still, we shouldn’t forget that Sexton was playing just his second match since the win over South Africa three months ago, and the captain himself admitted: “I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous as I was before a game. For lots of reasons, but the main one was I’d forgotten what it was like to do a build up. I’d had one game on New Year’s Day since South Africa and I got injured in that.
“I trained hard, made some mistakes in training but you want to train well and then hopefully you get a few less on Saturday.
“We came a bit unstuck in the third quarter, we just need to look at that and see what we can do better. We’ll get through it and see how we are next week.”
Farrell hailed Sexton’s “massive” influence both in the build-up and during his 69 minutes on the pitch.
“There’s no doubts about his age in our mind. I spoke to him over the last two weeks constantly about ‘there’s no excuse, you need to be at your best’. He cares about his rugby so much and cares about doing such a good job for his team.
“He was saying there, he was nervous about the game but we were trying to get him to the point where he’s just going to be at his best even though he hadn’t played for so long. He handles that, runs a team, as in makes the team feel right, and then goes out and performs at the same time.
“I thought his goalkicking was excellent as well,” added the coach after Sexton kicked five from five. “It’s a testament to his character.”
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Doris try, Sexton con 0-7; 9 mins Ryan try, Sexton con 0-14; 15 mins Biggar pen 3-14; 19 mins Sexton pen 3-17; 21 mins Lowe try, Sexton con 3-24; 27 mins Sexton pen 3-27; (half-time 3-27); 46 mins L Williams try, Biggar con 10-27; 73 mins Van der Flier try, Byrne con 10-34.
Wales: Liam Williams (Cardiff); Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby), George North (Ospreys), Joe Hawkins (Ospreys) Rio Dyer (Dragons), Dan Biggar (Toulon), Tomos Williams (Cardiff Rugby); Gareth Thomas (Ospreys), Ken Owens (Scarlets, capt), Tomas Francis (Ospreys), Adam Beard (Ospreys), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Jac Morgan (Ospreys), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Taulupe Faletau (Cardiff Rugby).
Replacements: Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Rugby) for Francis (half-time); Rhys Carre (Cardiff Rugby) for Thomas, Tommy Reffell (Leicester Tigers) for Tipuric (both 54 mins), Scott Baldwin (Ospreys) for Owens, Dafydd Jenkins (Exeter Chiefs) for A Wyn Jones (both 61 mins), Rhys Webb (Ospreys) for T Williams (64 mins), Owen Williams (Ospreys) (67 mins), Alex Cuthbert (Ospreys) for Dyer (69 mins).
Sinbinned – L Williams (65-75 mins).
Ireland: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Conor Murray (Munster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), James Ryan (Leinster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).
Replacements – Iain Henderson (Ulster) for Beirne (54 mins), Tom O’Toole (Ulster) for Bealham, Jack Conan (Leinster) for O’Mahony, Bundee Aki (Connacht) for McCloskey (all 60 mins), Craig Casey (Munster) for Murray (65 mins), Ross Byrne (Leinster) for Sexton (all 69 mins), Rob Herring (Ulster) for Sheehan, Dave Kilcoyne (Munster) for Porter (76 mins).
Referee: Karl Dickson (England).
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