Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes go up in smoke
Ireland run out of ideas in Cardiff as Wales get the better of Joe Schmidt’s side
Wales 23 Ireland 16
The title will still go to the wire, but the dream of a Grand Slam is over. Backed into uncharted territory when falling behind from the second minute, and under scoreboard pressure as they fell foul of Wayne Barnes for Leigh Halfpenny to open up a 12-point lead, Ireland could never fully recover.
Like a boxer whose legs wobbled in the first round, one couldn’t fault their bravery or their effort. The statistics may well show that Ireland had more of the ball and more of the territory, but there were echoes of the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Wales in Wellington in the manner they absorbed pressure with their voracious defence and opportunistically took their scores.
In a throbbing contest, the game was full of warrior spirit, but despite a monumental performance from Paul O’Connell on his 100th appearance for his country, in truth Ireland just weren’t accurate enough - making far too many handling errors and often at key moments. Increasingly in the second-half there was also hints of panic in the way Ireland went through phases in their own half.
Wales weren’t especially creative, Ireland arguably played with more variation, but in the first-half especially Wales were more accurate and more aggressive in what they did - flinging themselves into tackles and the breakdown as they pegged Irish carriers behind the gain line and slowed down ruck ball effectively.
Sam Warburton was immense while Luke Charteris put his body on the line with a scarcely credible 37 tackles.
They also won the aerial duel - the excellent Leigh Halfpenny retrieving one of his own up-and-unders from above Conor Murray after a quick throw by Dan Biggar in the build-up to one of his penalties which pushed them into an early 12-0 lead.
O’Connell was warmly welcomed onto the pitch when he led Ireland out, closely followed by Johnny Sexton, who was winning his 50th cap. After the four proud provinces came the typically stirring rendition of The Land of My Fathers, Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, followed in turn by the crowd launching into their rugby anthem, Bread of Heaven.
Maximising home advantage, the momentum stayed with Wales from Dan Biggar’s kick-off, which appeared to rebound off Rob Kearney’s shoulder into the advancing red swathe. Ireland were quick off the line to stop the predictable early carries by Jamie Roberts, of which there were three in the opening minutes, with Sexton cutting him off before O’Connell tackled him.
But Wayne Barnes, taking scarcely a minute to penalise Ireland, adjudged that O’Connell did not roll away. If so, it certainly made no material difference to Rhys Webb moving the ball on. From straight in front of the posts, Halfpenny opened the scoring.
And so it continued. Peter O’Mahony was pinged for not rolling away; Jamie Heaslip for not releasing when Gethin Jenkins poached and Jack McGrath for slowing down ruck ball, and so Halfpenny made it 12-0 by the 14th minute. Having applied scoreboard pressure with 9-3 leads in each of their previous three wins, this time Ireland were going to have to come from behind.
The fourth penalty had followed the game’s first set-piece, a scrum, and which had left Welsh tight-head Samson Lee poleaxed. Ireland were almost grateful for the stoppage which led to Lee being carried off as it punctured the remorseless Welsh momentum.
Even something more remarkable followed when Barnes pinged Wales for the first time, namely George North and Scott Baldwin for not releasing after tackling an airborne Rob Kearney. Alas, Sexton pushed the angled 45 metre penalty just wide, only his third miss of the season and only Ireland’s second of the campaign.
From the restart Baldwin was then guilty of a high, stiff-armed tackle on Tommy Bowe. From fully 48 metres, this time Sexton found the accuracy as well as the distance to prompt the first Irish score and cheer of the match.
But after Barnes dubiously adjudged Ireland had used up an advantage from what would have been a kickable penalty, Ireland went to the corner with another penalty only for Sam Warburton to pinch a slightly underthrown Rory Best dart from Devin Toner at the tail.
By the 22nd minute the penalty count was 6-3 to Wales - welcome to the usual pedantic Barnes concerto. There was no flow, no rhythm, although encouragingly Ireland’s scrum walked the Welsh pack back for a relieving penalty. Less encouragingly, after another Welsh line-out steal, Liam Williams chased and won his own kick ahead - their third aerial win out of four of the game.
Warburton was then binned for not releasing after the tackle and playing the ball while off his feet. Much as the crowd predictably booed, it was a fair cop really. “You had your warning Sam,” Barnes told the Welsh captain. “Come off the ball. You are the tackler. You know the law.” And the law won.
Sexton landed his second penalty and Ireland began to penetrate more with their carries, although oddly Heaslip’s pass to Sexton caught the outhalf unawares as he had his back turned to organise the line. In an edgy start for Sexton, this added to a missed tackle, kick-off out on the full and missed penalty.
Contentiously, yet again, Barnes penalised McGrath when walking Aaron Jarvis backwards, and from the resultant line-out drive, Wales ran down the clock - often going off their feet - before Biggar stepped into the pocket to land a drop goal.
However, O’Connell made a big, hard carry off a Sexton pass and offloaded, with the impressive Jared Payne also making good yards before Wales were penalised for tackling the man without the ball and Sexton made it 15-9. The visitors came close on a number of occasions to piercing the fast-up Welsh defence closer in with passes back against the grain, and Murray and Heaslip almost worked a break for Kearney, but the half ended, fittingly, with Barnes penalising the Irish scrum.
Just 30 seconds after the interval (during which Rob Evans replaced Wales’ other prop, Jenkins) Barnes pinged Ireland for offside. Ireland were trying moves on the gain line close in, Sexton working a dummy before passing to Robbie Henshaw, and then back inside to O’Brien, before he kicked out on the full, left-footed.
Moving toward the 50th minute, Ireland went up a gear, O’Connell sparking the first of two multiple phases with his second line break. After the first, Liam Williams was pinged for not releasing after the tackle, and after the maul inched toward the line Bowe came off his wing and was tackled fractionally short of the line. Again Ireland went through phase after phase, Heaslip and co carrying hard. It was exhausting stuff, and the Welsh defence was roared on before Sexton was pinged for going over the top. Irish carriers often took the ball too flat and on their heels rather than come onto the ball with depth. It had lasted three minutes. It felt pivotal.
Back came Wales. From a turnover on halfway, Ireland’s defence became dog-legged and outnumbered for Jonathan Davies to make a big break up field, and a few phases later Rob Kearney tackled Williams just short o the line before Biggar overthrew a long skip pass to Halfpenny on the touchline.
The Irish lineout malfunctioned again, Best under-throwing slightly once more, and Wales came calling again. Unlike Ireland they went wider, quicker, and when Heaslip made the rare mistake of being sucked in on Biggar, it created the space for replacement centre Scott Williams to pierce the green line and score. Surprisingly, Halfpenny missed a fairly routine conversion.
Ireland responded with renewed intent and impact off the bench, but again attacked too narrowly when they had numbers and after Eoin Reddan tapped and went under the posts Cian Healy knocked on. Cue Bread of Heaven.
Fully 12 minutes from time Ireland eschewed a penalty from in front of the posts to go to the corner and a patient, steady drive was rewarded by Barnes when it was pulled down as he walked under the posts to signal a penalty try, Sexton’s conversion made it 20-16. Game back on.
Alas, as Ireland went through the phases in their own half with Iain Henderson bouncing one Welsh tackler, Sexton knocked on. Again they felt compelled to go through the phases in their own half - unfamiliar terrain - and Healy was pinged for not releasing when Luke Charteris couldn’t be shifted off the ball. Halfpenny made it 23-16 and Ian Madigan replaced Sexton.
Davies was penalised and rightly yellow carded for a deliberate one-handed knock-on as the match entered its endgame. Madigan appeared to kick the penalty into the corner dead, but Barnes had walked to an injured Richard Hibbard, and when he located the corner a second time, Ireland’s maul was held up and to deafening roars Wales won the turnover scrum and an ensuing scrum penalty.
That was that.
Scoring sequence: 2 mins Halfpenny pen 3-0; 7 mins Halfpenny pen 6-0; 11 mins Halfpenny pen 9-0; 14 mins Halfpenny pen 12-0; 18 mins Sexton pen 12-3; 30 mins Sexton pen 12-6; 34 mins Biggar drop goal 15-6; 37 mins Sexton pen 15-9; (half-time 15-9); 62 mins Scott Williams try 20-9; 69 mins penalty try, Sexton con 20-16; 75 mins Halfpenny pen 23-16.
WALES: Leigh Halfpenny; George North, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Liam Williams; Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Gethin Jenkins, Scott Baldwin, Samson Lee; Luke Charteris, Alun Wyn Jones; Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton (capt), Toby Faletau.
Replacements: Aaron Jarvis for Lee (15 mins); Rob Evans for Jenkins (half-time); Richard Hibbard for Baldwin (57 mins); Scott Williams for Roberts (60 mins); Justin Tipuric for Lydiate, Mike Phillips for Webb (both 69 mins); Jake Ball for A W Jones (72 mins). Did not play: Rhys Priestland. Sinbinned: Warburton (27-37 mins), Davies (78 mins).
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell (capt), Peter O’Mahony , Seán O’Brien , Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Cian Healy for McGrath (56 mins); Eoin Reddan for Murray, Seán Cronin for Best, Martin Moore for Ross, Iain Henderson for Toner (all 62 mins); Jordi Murphy for Heaslip (71 mins), Ian Madigan for Sexton (74 mins). Not used: Felix Jones.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)