Ireland 19 Wales 10
Top of the world ma. Not perfect, but much more like it. Far from derailed, Ireland duly completed a deserved double over Wales with their most impressive warm-up performance of the four. That, along with ensuring a fitting send-off, not least for Rory Best and Joe Schmidt on their final home game and, eh, securing the world's number one ranking for the first time, would do nicely.
“This place has been unbelievably special for me over many many years. The support we got today summed up the support we’ve got throughout my career,” said an emotional Best to the crowd on field. He thanked his teammates, his family and said it was nice to “finish with a performance we can be proud of” and “a very efficient performance against a quality side.”
He could not let the moment pass without paying tribute to Schmidt. “With Ireland he has transformed the game here and I’ve been very privileged and I can’t be grateful enough for what Joe Schmidt has done for me,” he said.
With that, the crowd were encouraged to roar their appreciation for the two departing men, and Best was given one more guard of honour by the squad and his kids.
For his part, Schmidt said: “It’s been a privilege to be involved. The last 10 years have been a heck of a ride and I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with such a special bunch.”
In thanking the support of his management and players, he began to choke up a little. Schmidt signs off with a home record coaching Ireland of played 34, 28 wins, one draw and five defeats. Add in Leinster and it reads: Played 86, 75 wins, one draw and just 10 defeats.
“There is fantastic character in the team. We just rolled our sleeves up and made the most of slow ball,” he added.
There may have been too much slow ball for the perfectionist's liking but on top of a physically dominant display, finishing the stronger against a side renowned for their fitness and resilience must have been very pleasing for him, Jason Cowman and the rest of the conditioning staff. Aside from not adding another try in their final salvo, the main blemish was the sight of Keith Earls limping off while Cian Healy didn't not return after undergoing an HIA at half-time.
“I think Cian is fine and I’m not sure about Keith yet,” said the Irish head coach.
There were a couple of early lineout wobbles, which prompted audible groans of concern amongst the home support, but it worked pretty smoothly thereafter, both before and following the re-jigging from the bench. The Irish scrum also came through a royal battle which, as ever, was well refereed by Mathieu Raynal.
Ireland's emphasis on physicality in finalising their World Cup squad was manifest in the grunt provided by Tadhg Furlong, Jean Kleyn, CJ Stander, Jack Conan and, in particular, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, across the line. It's not often that teams go mano a mano in this manner with Wales, and as a result Conor Murray and Johny Sexton, who both looked in good nick along with the returning Henshaw and Earls, were also able to generate quite a high tempo.
There was also variation in Ireland's attacking game, be it offloads in midfield where the outstanding Aki and Henshaw seamlessly revived their old Connacht understanding, and in Sexton’s long and short kicking game.
Another definite boon was the performance of Rob Kearney. Much better than at Twickenham under the high ball with a couple of confidence-boosting early takes, but again demonstrating his passing game, Kearney looked sharp, fit and quick. He saved one try, helped to prevent another and ended a run of 25 tests dating back to the pool deciding win over France four years ago with an excellent finish.
Ireland's Call had ended with Sexton giving Best an affectionate pat. Plenty of eyes were also on Kleyn, and his first act was to push up too quickly from Wales' second recycle. But Leigh Halfpenny surprisingly missed the 40 metre penalty. The juices were flowing a little too much, and Sexton did his team no favours by sending his restart out on the full.
In what looked like a pre-planned move, Tomos Williams went left off the solid scrum but reverse passed to the right, where Halfpenny chipped in behind for George North. Kearney read the situation and covered across quickly to prevent the try. Ireland put in a couple of good defensive sets, albeit Aki was pinged for not rolling away, and when Wales went up the line and first launched Jonathan Davies up the middle, Sexton, Cian Healy and Ryan combined for a turnover choke tackle on Josh Adams.
However, with Justin Tipuric having picked off Best's first lineout, Alun Wyn Jones did likewise with his second, albeit there was little wrong with the throw. Best soon atoned, if he needed to, when earning a relieving penalty against Ross Moriarty in the jackal.
From a scrum, Jack Conan made the most of scrappy ball and Aki took Murray’s pass to earn front foot ball. A few phases later, Aki ran hard again, made a half-break and returned an earlier offload from Henshaw. Larmour made more yards on the outside and when Wales pushed up too early, Sexton kicked to the corner rather than take the three points.
Best's throw hit Ryan, and from the maul, Larmour came off his wing to loop around Aki. Ireland hammered through five phases, Stander bumping Rhys Patchell, before Kearney took Sexton's flat pass to fend Davies and beat Halfpenny's covering tackle for a fine finish. Sexton converted, although when Larmour tackled Halpfenny while still airborne, the fullback opened Wales' account. In between, Patchell departed, after been run over three times, for Dan Biggar to enter the fray.
Biggar immediately picked off Sexton's pass and looked sure to score but he was chased down and brilliantly tackled by Henshaw who, in tandem with the sliding Kearney, prevented him from completing the touchdown. He admitted as much to Raynal. But from the ensuing battering off a five metre scrum, Hadleigh Parkes came roaring up from deep to take Williams' flat pass and beat Henshaw's tackle.
Wales were finding their range, North beating Kearney in the air to Williams’ box kick and Kleyn conceding another penalty for side entry as they stretched Ireland from touchline to touchline.
Ireland’s defensive set was strong again though, and they finished the half when going through multiple phases as a sweet pass from Kearney released Larmour up the right. But when Sexton wrapped, his old Lions teammate Jonathan Davies read it and the ensuing choke tackle - the biter being bit - ensured the Welsh took a 10-7 lead into the break.
Sexton was unhappy about being taken out late, and clearly informed Raynal as much in tandem with Best as the players left the field. On the resumption, the Irish outhalf located the leaping Larmour with one cross-kick and overcooked an up-and-under but the next was on the money, Larmour’s chase preventing Halfpenny from a clean take before the winger earned a penalty in the jackal over Williams.
Although Ireland's lineout maul was in motion, Raynal had signaled a second indirect penalty against Wales for encroaching. The first power play off a scrum ended with Ryan being held up over the line by Jake Ball. The second, initiated by Conan's carry off the base, earned a penalty for offside. The third, with Henshaw again trucking up to within two metres of the line before Ryan's carry as Kleyn latched on, ended with Furlong crashing through the tackles of Williams and Francis for just his second test try.
With Sexton's conversion, Ireland withdrew Best to huge applause, as well as Kleyn and, more worryingly, a limping Earls, to be replaced by Sean Cronin, Iain Henderson and Garry Ringrose. The latter's first involvement was an excellent defensive read off the left wing, and a double hit by Murray and Conan helped end another Welsh attack. Cue a big Irish scrum, without the renowned Best and Kleyn.
Best of all was the way Ireland went for the jugular after the reshuffling from the bench. From the ensuing lineout, when Cronin just about hit Ryan at the tail and Conan tidied up, this time Aki trucked it up off Sexton’s no-look pass.
On and on Ireland went, consistently inching over the gain line as Kilcoyne, Cronin, Andrew Porter and Henderson, thundering onto Sexton's inside pass, added ballast before Ryan crashed through Aaron Wainwright's tackle for the try. Sexton missed his conversion but Ireland were two scores clear.
After Aki's speed off the line and hit forced a spillage by Alun Wyn Jones, a feint rendition of the The Fields was interrupted when Porter was penalised for dropping down at a scrum. But after Sexton skipped off to be replaced by Carty, Stander, Rhys Ruddock (on for Van der Flier in what was now a fairly sizeable back-row) and co earned a turnover at maul time, and Porter then earned a scrum penalty.
For once Aki trucked it up only to be held up, but Schmidt and Andy Farrell won't have minded watching Ireland keep their numbers out wide, where Murray's tackle and Ringrose's rip earned another turnover. Jack Carty then intelligently found grass in behind Biggar to ensure Ireland finished on the front foot. One lineout drive having been held up, another eventually led to a yellow card for Adam Beard for collapsing.
Now The Fields was being bellowed out with gusto. Kilcoyne was held up over the line. Just a tad disappointingly, Ireland lost control of the ball at a dominant scrum, but the game ended with Kilcoyne's tackle on Ken Owens forcing one final turnover.
The crowd roared their approval one last time. Statement made.
Scoring sequence: 22 mins Kearney try, Sexton con 7-0; 26 mins Halfpenny pen 7-3; 31 mins Parkes try, Halfpenny con 7-10; (half-time 7-10); 51 mins Furlong try, Sexton con 14-10; 59 mins Ryan try 19-10.
Ireland: Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster); Jordan Larmour (St Mary's College/Leinster); Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster), Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Jonathan Sexton (St Mary's College/Leinster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster, capt) Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster), James Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Jean Kleyn (Munster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster), Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster), Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster). Replacements: Dave Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster) for Healy (half-time), Sean Cronin (St Mary's College/Leinster) for Best, Iain Henderson (Queens University/Ulster) for Kleyn, Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster) for Earls (all 53 mins), Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster) for Furlong (57 mins), Rhys Ruddock (St Mary's College/Leinster) for Van der Flier (60 mins),Jack Carty (Buccaneers/Connacht) for Sexton (64 mins), Luke McGrath (UCD/Leinster) for Murray (72 mins).
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets); George North (Ospreys), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Josh Adams (Cardiff Blues); Rhys Patchell (Scarlets), Tomos Williams (Cardiff Blues); Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Elliot Dee (Dragons), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, capt), Aaron Wainwright (Dragons), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Ross Moriarty (Dragons). Replacements: Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints) for Patchell (23 mins), Ken Owen (Scarlets) for Dee, Nicky Smith (Ospreys) for W Jones, Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Blues) for Francis, Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues) for Moriarty (all 60 mins), Liam Williams (Saracens) for Halfpenny (66 mins), Gareth Davies (Scarlets) for T Williams (70 mins), Adam Beard (Ospreys) for Ball (74 mins). Sinbinned: Beard (78 mins).
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).