Ireland fight fire with fire against Wales to win thriller
Grand Slam dream remains on course - but only just after epic battle in Dublin
Ireland and Wales don’t tend to do dull but even by their standards this was a bizarre, rip-roaring, riotous rollercoaster of a game. So much for Wales coming in search of the bonus point. In the event, it was an ebullient, potent, often dominant Ireland who had one bagged by the 55th minute, but even then it required an intercept try in overtime by Jacob Stockdale to deny Wales another of their unlikely comeback wins and, ironically, even a losing bonus point.
In many ways it should never have come to that, but that it did could be in part attributed to Johnny Sexton’s initially iffy place-kicking and Leigh Halfpenny’s unerring boot, as well as Wales’ ability to expose chinks in Ireland’s wide defence.
In almost all other respects Ireland were the superior team, and mostly on the front foot. Every foot soldier up front was immense, but special mention should be made for the young tyros, Andrew Porter and James Ryan, who locked down the tighthead side of the scrum.
The Irish pack’s maul regularly sent Wales trundling backwards, Ireland’s runners pummelled the Welsh defensive line, and their breakdown work across the board was conducted with almost savage intent. Ireland also mixed their game up beautifully, mixing inside passes in the face of Wales’ fast-up defence, and launching the forward runners and Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell hard to the gain line from Conor Murray’s flat passes.
Following his minor injury scare yesterday, Sexton was the only Irish player to keep his tracksuit top on in the warm-up but by contrast, while he missed his first three place kicks, his game management and particularly his passing and running game, was of the highest quality.
Outside him, Farrell was immense, adding deft hands, footwork and big plays to his brute strength and one important restart take, while the wings, Stockdale and the rapid-fire Keith Earls, were electric.
Interestingly, no sooner had Farrell made a big follow-up tackle on Halfpenny when Stockdale returned the Welsh kick-off, than Dan Biggar used his first possession to crosskick toward the Keith Earls-Steff Evans match-up.
The ploy yielded an immediate three point dividend when the ball deflected forward off Earls, Bundee Aki played it and Leigh Halfpenny nailed the 50 metre penalty with room to spare.
However, Farrell brilliantly reclaimed Sexton’s hanging restart, and Ryan trucked it up and Rob Evans was penalised for not rolling away. Sexton, surprisingly, struck the right upright with his straightish 30 metre attempt, but it turned out not to be a bad miss, because from the recycle Scott Williams’ ambitious wide pass to Steff Evans 10 metres from his own line floated forward.
Andrew Porter locked his first scrum, helping to provide a solid platform for Murray to launch Farrell before the forwards hammered away and Sexton’s beautiful skip pass took Halfpenny, who had bit in, out of the game for Stockdale to score his seventh try in seven tests in the seventh minute.
By the ninth minute Wales had equalled their entire penalty count in Twickenham, and by the 14th they had surpassed it, but Sexton missed from about 30 metres out and 15 metres to the left. Worried groans swept through the home crowd.
Wales were having joy ripping the ball in contact, and when Kearney was stripped after the 13-phase attack had taken them from one 22 to the other it allowed Halfpenny to kick downfield. Sexton’s sliced clearance close to the touchline conceded a lineout outside the Irish 22. From it, Aaron Shingler’s big carry put Wales on the front foot, and with Glenn Jackson playing an advantage, the stretched Irish defence momentarily seemed to freeze for Gareth Davies to jink inside Stockdale and under the posts. Two visits to the Irish 22, two scores and a 10-5 lead.
The edginess in the home team and crowd alike was palpable, intermingled with relief when Halfpenny missed from halfway, and when Dan Leavy, typically, won a penalty for not releasing against Steff Evans.
But this was undone by Alun Wyn Jones beating Peter O’Mahony to Rory Best’s throw and when Biggar, typically, reclaimed Gareth Davies’ box kick from Stockdale in the air, Jackson initially decreed a knock-on on the deck, much to Biggar’s incredulity, before replays showed Kearney had illegally kicked the ball from his hands. Halfpenny made it 13-8.
Ireland responded with another lovely move, Sexton working his wraparound and going out the back for Earls to again show his wheels are as well oiled as ever with another Irish line break. Nice hands by Farrell helped to release Stockdale on the left touchline, and he offloaded superbly inside to Kearney. Farrell made yet another big carry, and the forwards battered the Welsh line but were continually held up, before compensation came by way of Sexton tapping over a penalty, to relieved cheers.
Better followed when Ireland went up the line with yet another breakdown penalty, and inched forward again through a take from Devin Toner. Again the forwards made the hard yards, as along with Aki and Farrell, runners came flat onto Murray’s passes and pounded the line. With another advantage, this time they weren’t to be denied as Aki careered onto Murray’s pass, busted a Ross Moriarty tackle, took one from Gareth Davies and reached out for the line before Hadleigh Parkes’ could reach him. Sexton’s conversion gave Ireland a 15-13 interval lead.
There were two ways of looking at this, for it was a slim return from almost 80 per cent possession and over 80 per cent territory, but then again at least it was a lead from an edgy start and a 13-5 deficit.
Kearney had a drop goal to nothing, which came to nothing, on the restart, but soon they were hammering away at the Welsh defence again after Stockdale dumped Biggar and Leavy snaffled the loose ball. After multiple phases, Kearney made inroads and offloaded to Earls, who did Halfpenny like a kipper with his wondrous footwork.
Although Murray couldn’t hold on to Earls’ offload inside, crucially he re-gathered the ball before it hit the deck, with Jackson perfectly positioned to wave play on. It was feeding time at the zoo again, Leavy pumping his legs for a fine close-range finish with a little help from Best and Sexton, who tagged on the conversion.
With three tries on board, Ireland immediately came knocking again, Sexton not for a moment considering a shot at goal when going to the corner. Although Shingler stole the lineout, Moriarty was engulfed behind his own line. After Murray, Sexton and Stander all had charges off the scrum, Healy burrowed through the tackles of Shingler, Moriarty and Gareth Davies.
However, one thing we know about Wales is that there are never beaten until the fat lady sings. With no option but to go for it, first they went wide to Steff Evans. They then found space out wide when going right for Josh Navidi to put Shingler over. Halfpenny’s touchline conversion, in comparison to Sexton’s two touchline misses, suddenly made it a one-score game at 27-20.
This made it all the more surprising when, 10 minutes from time, Sexton appeared to be sizing up a penalty about 30 metres out, and 10 to the left of the posts, when tapping and charging to the corner. That came too nothing with an Irish knock-on and what’s more the counter-ruck saw Murray’s left knee trapped, and then heavily bandaged.
When Fergus McFadden fumbled Kearney’s offload, it enabled Wales to attack wide from the right, and George North went around Stockdale before being collared by Kearney, and there were huge roars of relief when Gareth Davies fumbled at the base.
Ireland augmented a new front-row with the introduction of Quinn Roux, the lock whom Mike Ross once said was the strongest second-row scrummager to pack down behind him. The Welsh scrum was dismantled and with Sexton hobbling and about to be replaced, Murray showed what a classy all-round footballer and big game player he is by unerringly striking the 35 metre penalty.
Even then North trucked it up to put Wales on the front foot, and Scott Williams freed his hands when double tackled by Aki and McFadden to offload to Navidi, now in the wide left channel, and this time he put Evans over. Halfpenny’s conversion made it 30-27.
When Wales went upfield with a penalty and attacked off one last lineout, the palpitations were, well, palpable. Whereupon, with the clock in the red zone, Stockdale read Gareth Anscombe’s attempted long skip pass. As soon as he went for it, the try was on, and sure enough he gathered comfortably and raced under the posts untouched. Cue delirium, as Stockdale was engulfed by his teammates and Joey Carbery tapped over the conversion.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Halfpenny pen 0-3; 7 mins Stockdale try 5-3; 21 mins G Davies try, Halfpenny con 5-10; 31 mins Halpfenny pen 5-13; 36 mins Sexton pen 8-13; 40 (+2) mins Aki try, Sexton con 15-13; (half-time 15-13); 45 mins Leavy try, Sexton con 22-13; 54 mins Healy try 27-13; 62 mins Navidi try, Halfpenny con 27-20; 76 mins Murry pen 30-20; 77 mins S Evans try, Halfpenny con 30-27; 81 mins Stockdale try, Carbery con 37-27.
Ireland: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Chris Farrell (Young Munster/Munster), Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch/Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt), Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster), James Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Dan Leavy (UCD/Leinster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster). Replacements: Jack McGrath (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) for Healy, Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for Earls (both 64 mins), John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster) for Porter (66 mins), Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster) for O’Mahony (67 mins), Sean Cronin (St. Mary’s College/Leinster) for Best (71 mins), Quinn Roux (Galwegians/Connacht) for Toner (75 mins), Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Leinster) for Sexton (76 mins). Not used: Kieran Marmion (Corinthians/Connacht).
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets); Liam Williams (Saracens), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Steff Evans (Scarlets); Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Gareth Davies (Scarlets); Rob Evans (Scarlets), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Cory Hill (Dragons), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys) (capt), Aaron Shingler (Scarlets), Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester). Replacements: Wyn Jones (Scarlets) for R Evans (56-74 mins), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs) for Lee (56 mins), Bradley Davies (Ospreys) for Hill, Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) for Moriarty, Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues) for Biggar, George North (Northampton Saints) for L Williams (all 64 mins). Not used: Elliot Dee (Dragons), Aled Davies (Scarlets).
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand).