Ireland fall short against Wales after Peter O’Mahony’s red card
Visitors left with a mountain to climb as Six Nations campaign starts with bruising loss
Wales 21 Ireland 16
Ireland returned to their bubble from Cardiff with a deeply frustrating and profound case of what might have been. A 14th minute red card for Peter O’Mahony left them with the proverbial mountain to climb, but they almost scaled it and might have done so with a little more discipline and accuracy.
There were many encouraging aspects to the performance, namely a very solid scrum, lineout and maul, with four opposition throws stolen. The squad had clearly worked effectively on their clearing out at the breakdown, and there was a good shape and variety to much of Ireland’s attacking game. Paul O’Connell’s influence was already manifest, and Ireland looked like a well-coached side.
There were also huge individual performances, not least from Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw, who returned from an HIA although his absence was felt. Alas, James Ryan and Johnny Sexton didn’t return and will now have to undergo return to play protocols.
Welsh centre Johnny Williams was another who didn’t return from an HIA, incurred with his own high tackle on Garry Ringrose which might have been punished more.
But as well as ill discipline, the kicking game was mixed and James Lowe will not enjoy reviews of the two tries conceded. Or at any rate, he shouldn’t do. Otherwise, the defensive shape was good.
Even with an 11-11 penalty count, not for the first time, they will feel aggrieved with the refereeing of Wayne Barnes, who was typically omnipresent, but they could have no complaints with some of the needless penalties conceded, nor O’Mahony’s red card.
This left his team, who trailed 3-0 at the time and would soon go 6-0 down, to play the remaining 66 minutes with 14 men.
After Josh van der Flier beat the tackle of Tomas Francis in his carry before being brought down by Justin Tipuric, Sexton drove in to clear out Francis from the wrong side of the ball, and O’Mahony followed in but caught the Welsh prop in the face with his shoulder.
When Barnes reviewed the incident with TMO Tom Foley he said: “First of all, it’s definitely foul play. He’s come from a distance at high speed and hits him in the head. He’s not in control. It’s high danger. Anyone disagree with the facts?”
None of his assistants did and though these things always look worse in slow motion and the contact was low to the ground, given the head is now sacrosanct, no-one watching could disagree either.
Ireland had actually begun the better, Keith Earls retrieving one Conor Murray box kick in the early bouts of aerial ping-pong and James Ryan nicking the first Welsh throw. There was variety and width to their attacking game yet it was Leigh Halfpenny who opened the scoring when O’Mahony came in from the side.
O’Mahony’s ensuing red card changed the whole dynamic of the match. Wales upped their recycling game and Halfpenny doubled the lead after Sexton went high on Johnny Williams. Soon after, James Ryan went off for an HIA and didn’t return, although Iain Henderson put in a good shift.
Even with 14 men there was a nice shape to a couple of multi-phase attacks which ended, alas, with a Sexton knock-on and Wyn Jones ripping the ball from Van der Flier.
Ireland were also using Lowe well, either as a strike carrier up the middle or with a huge touchfinder after the leveling penalty. A third steal and good carries by van der Flier and Beirne led to Sexton working a switchback with Robbie Henshaw. His footwork has been a standout this season and he left both Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau, of all people, for dead before offloading to Van der Flier.
Cleverly, he didn’t over extend himself in reaching out for the line and Cian Healy’s big clear-out paved the way for Beirne to pick up and plunge over, Sexton’s conversion completing an unanswered 13-point response to O’Mahony’s dismissal for a 13-6 interval lead.
But within nine minutes of the interval, Ringrose lost the ball forward in attempting an offload, Henderson also knocking on, and George North used a penalty advantage to beat Henderson on the outside and dummy Lowe to beat him on the inside. A soft score although Halfpenny surprisingly missed the conversion.
Nearing the hour, with the influential Henshaw off the pitch for an HIA, good hands by North and Halpfenny allowed Louis Rees-Zammit to score adroitly in the corner, as Lowe came in off his wing to no effect other than to leave Tadhg Furlong cornerflagging. This time Halfpenny nailed the touchline conversion to push Wales 18-13 ahead.
A rubbish call by Barnes, pinging Beirne for “being in the tackle zone” when legitimately contesting a loose ball as any player under the sun would have done, enabled Halfpenny to make it a two-score game.
A rare opportunity for an attacking platform was squandered when Sexton didn’t find touch with a penalty and he was soon gingerly walking off after the Irish captain was caught in the head by Justin Tipuric’s knee.
One good sustained attack did yield a penalty by Burns to leave Ireland requiring a converted try but another 10-phase attack came to nought when Burns’ overcooked a risky crosskick.
Nick Tompkins closed the door with a good read on Jordan Larmour but opened it again with a diving one-handed deliberate knock-on in over time without incurring yellow.
George North widened it a little further when playing the ball on the deck (eh, no yellow again Wayne?) only for Burns, unbelievably, to overcook, or overslice, his penalty into the corner.
If ever there was a moment to make sure of finding touch, that was it.
Scoring sequence: 5 mins Halfpenny pen 3-0; 19 mins Halfpenny pen 6-0; 29 mins Sexton pen 6-3; 35 mins Sexton pen 6-6; 38 mins Beirne try, Sexton con 6-13; (half-time 6-13); 48 mins North try 11-13; 59 mins Rees-Zammit try, Halkfpenny con 18-13; 66 mins Halfpenny pen 21-13; 72 mins Burns pen 21-16.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets); Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester), George North (Ospreys), Johnny Williams (Scarlets), Hallam Amos (Cardiff); Dan Biggar (Northampton), Tomos Williams (Cardiff); Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Tomas Francis (Exeter), Adam Beard (Ospreys), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, capt), Dan Lydiate (Ospreys), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Taulupe Faletau (Bath). Replacements: Josh Navidi (Cardiff) for Lydiate (13 mins), Nick Tompkins (Dragons) for J Williams (24 mins), Gareth Davies (Scarlets) for T Williams (half-time), Rhodri Jones (Ospreys) for for W Jones (66 mins), Leon Brown (Dragons) for Francis, Callum Sheedy (Bristol) for Amos (all 66), Will Rowlands (Wasps) for Beard (73 mins) Unused - Elliot Dee (Dragons) for Owens.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD); Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers), James Lowe (Leinster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College, capt), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen); Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf), Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch), Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne), James Ryan (Leinster/UCD), Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution), Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD), CJ Stander (Munster/Shannon). Replacements: Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy) for Ryan (25 mins), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster/UL Bohemians) for Healy (52 mins), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf) for Porter (54 mins), Billy Burns (Ulster) for Henshaw (54-64 mins) and for Sexton (70 mins), Will Connors (Leinster/UCD) for van der Flier (60 mins), Jordan Larmour (Leinster/St Mary’s College) for Earls (62 mins), Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne) for Herring, Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) for Murray (both 72 mins). Red card: O’Mahony (14 mins).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Luke Pearce (England), Alex Ruiz (England).
TMO: Tom Foley (England).