George North's double sees Irish title hopes go south
Familiar Welsh tactics help smother the Ireland team at the Principality Stadium
George North scores the first of his two tries in the Six Nations game against Ireland at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Wales 22 Ireland 9
The margin is a little unflattering on a game which hinged on many pivotal moments and one marginal one in particular, but in the end, Ireland could have no complaints. Their effort could not be faulted. They strained every sinew, but buoyed by the lead, Wales again backed their defence to the hilt with unrelenting, pressure tackling. Ireland threw everything at them, but Wales seemed to read everything, and certainly tackled everything.
As in the Wellington World Cup quarter-final of 2011, as here two years ago there was ne’er a chink of light in the red defensive line in a predictably gruelling and punishing affair – Wales making 149 tackles out of 170, Ireland 138 out of 155.
If Wales were fractionally the more penetrative side, they certainly had more of a cutting edge, whereas ultimately for all their efforts and despite Johnny Sexton pulling all his strings, Ireland were left looking a little blunt. They lacked accuracy at key moments.
On what was actually a pleasantly dry if raucous night in Cardiff, even more curiously the pitch appeared to have been heavily watered, making the ball very slippery.
After the customary renditions of Delilah, the Fields of Athenry and Bread of Heaven, then a minute’s applause for Elli Norkett, the young Welsh women’s star who tragically died in a car crash; the respective rugby anthems, Ireland’s Call and in particular Land of My Fathers, reverberated off the roof. Ireland were playing away from home alright.
They matched Wales for intensity at the outset and began confidently. Garry Ringrose held up Alun Wyn Jones for Jack McGrath to rip the ball, and after a loop by Sexton, Simon Zebo gathered his own chip on the left. Ireland’s first scrum was rock solid too and a high tackle by Rhys Webb on Robbie Henshaw allowed Sexton to unerringly open the scoring.
Ireland were also pushing up hard in defence; Seán O’Brien nearly intercepted a Webb pass intended for Dan Biggar, before Sexton then did pick off a pass by the latter to Scott Williams.
Soon though, Ireland were having to meet Wales’ heavy artillery with some heavy hits – notably by O’Brien on Justin Tipuric and Henshaw on Rob Evans. A stunning carry by CJ Stander, fending off Scott Williams, led to Ireland kicking to the corner, but Jones brilliantly pinched Rory Best’s throw from Donnacha Ryan.
The contest kept ebbing, and when Liam Williams grubbered through, the covering Sexton gathered on the slide. He was caught by Jonathan Davies’s left thigh and departed for a Head Injury Assessment, to be replaced by Paddy Jackson.
At the ensuing Welsh lineout, Scott Williams steamed onto Webb’s superbly delayed flat pass to break through a dog leg between Jackson and Henshaw, with O’Brien unable to stop him. Webb supported his centre on the inside to take the return pass, veer right and locate Leigh Halfpenny with a long left to right pass, for North to take the fullback’s pass and plough through Keith Earls and Simon Zebo at full tilt for the opening try. Cardiff rocked.
Halfpenny’s conversion drifted wide, and Kearney brought Ireland back into the game with a couple of superb aerial takes. A clumsily conceded penalty by Webb led to Ireland twice going to the corner again. The mauls were held up, but Stander made a fine carry, and when Tipuric didn’t release after the tackle, Jackson kicked Ireland in front.
Sexton promptly returned, and snaffled another intercept. However, when Conor Murray tackled North, but on landing he appeared to injure his left arm. Murray carried on, albeit his passing – especially off his left hand – seemed to lose its zip.
After Biggar crosskicked to Liam Williams, Halfpenny passed infield to Davies, who was only denied by a brilliant tackle by Sexton. He was very harshly adjudged to have “clearly killed the ball on the line” according to Barnes and yellow-carded, even though Sexton was even more clearly trapped.
Halfpenny kicked Wales to an 8-6 interval lead.
Upon the resumption, Ireland ran down the clock cleverly until O’Brien’s loose pass eluded Heaslip, and North was onto it for Webb to quick-wittedly box kick into space. Halfpenny tackled Murray into touch and you could have thrown a blanket over the Welsh maul which sucked in Best, the blindside forward defender, leaving Webb with a two-on-one against Zebo to put North over for his second try. Halfpenny converted and Murray went off.
Effective spoiling by Tipuric, who along with Sam Warburton had mighty games, had 14-man Ireland defending their line again. But Jake Ball was penalised for taking down an Irish maul, affording Ireland a mightily welcome exit.
Wales withstood two exhausting drives, before a high tackle by Biggar on Ringrose enabled Sexton to make it 15-9.
After Biggar’s drop goal hit the upright. Ireland were quicker to use their bench. Jones stole another Best throw and Luke Charteris did likewise upon his introduction.
Still Sexton was straining every sinew, trying all his tricks, doing his wraparound, passing wide to Earls, kicking probingly to the corners. There being no way through, Henshaw grubbered to the corner and Zebo tackled Halfpenny into touch.
Now the pack strained every sinew in inching their maul toward the line, as did the Welsh in seeking to keep them out. Henshaw came storming in to lend a shoulder but as Best clearly plunged for the line, Barnes penalised Henshaw for joining the maul fractionally in front of Best. Instead of Sexton having a kickable conversion for the line, it was a relieving penalty for Wales. It looked a fair call, Henshaw’s understandable enthusiasm getting the better of him.
Sexton crosskicked to both wingers, Zebo gathering, but Wales held firm, even when Peter O’Mahony’s pressure on Tipuric at a Welsh lineout enabled Kieran Marmion and Ryan nail Gareth Davies for a five-metre scrum. But Jamie Roberts read Ringrose’s inside ball for Earls and forced a spillage.
Wales exited with a maul and box kick, forcing Ireland to run it from their own 22 entering the last three minutes – which was even less likely given they couldn’t in the opposition 22. Sexton, trying something different to outwit the fast-up defence, chipped but Toby Faletau blocked and Jamie Roberts gathered for the try.
Wales even went looking for a fourth, but that was it for Ireland.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 7 mins Sexton pen 0-3; 20 mins North try 5-3; 27 mins Jackson pen 5-6; 39 mins Halfpenny pen 8-6; (half-time 8-6); 44 mins North try, Halfpenny con 15-6; 57 mins Sexton pen 15-9; 77 mins Roberts try, Halfpenny con 22-9.
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon); George North (Northampton), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Scott WIlliams (Scarlets), Liam Williams (Scarlets); Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Rhys Webb (Ospreys); Rob Evans (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Tomas Francis (Exeter); Jake Ball (Scarlets), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, capt); Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester).
Replacements: Luke Charteris (Bath) for Ball (63 mins), Nicky Smith (Ospreys) for Rob Evans, Jamie Roberts (Harlequins) for S Williams, Taulupe Faletau (Bath) for Moriarty, Gareth Davies (Scarlets) for Webb (all 67 mins), Samson Lee (Scarlets) for Francis (71 mins), Scott Baldwin (Ospreys) for Evans (72 mins). Not used: Sam Davies (Ospreys),
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Jake McGrath (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Devin Toner (Leinster); CJ Stander (Munster), Sean O’Brien (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: Paddy Jackson (Ulster) for Sexton (19-28 and 78 mins), Kieran Marmion (Connacht) for Murray (47 mins), Cian Healy (Leinster) for McGrath (59 mins), Iain Henderson (Ulster) for Toner (63 mins), Peter O’Mahony (Munster) for Stander (63 mins), Niall Scannell (Munster) for Best, John Ryan (Munster) for Furlong, Tommy Bowe (Ulster) for Bowe (all 78 mins).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).