No harm in imperfect display as Ireland swat Wales aside

Andy Farrell praises defence as the best part of Ireland’s game after nearly keeping clean sheet

Ireland 29 Wales 7

This wasn't perfect but there's probably no harm in that. Only three teams in the 22 previous editions of the Six Nations have ever recovered from an opening defeat to win the title and this bonus point win over the champions sets Ireland up nicely for next Saturday's crunch game in Paris.

In truth, Ireland’s varied, high tempo attacking game could have yielded a bigger dividend than four tries and if they ultimately miss out on the title on points’ difference they might rue not slaying the Dragons even more.

Founded on solid setpieces, supreme discipline and supremacy in the collisions, Ireland were particularly ruthless when scoring 14 points while Josh Adams served ten minutes in the bin for his dim-witted shoulder charge into Johnny Sexton.

As with the second quarter, they didn’t see this through in the final quarter with a mildly disappointing impact from the bench, but television masked the wet and windy weather.

"It was a funny old game," admitted Andy Farrell. "The conditions were horrendous, honestly. It was mild enough out there so people wouldn't have been freezing but as far as the conditions are concerned, the wind was changing constantly.

“It was wet drizzle constantly that was making the game sticky.

“We was trying to get some continuity, sometimes I thought we certainly overplayed. We certainly did for the Welsh try anyway.

“I actually thought we overplayed sometimes because it was so slow, and the ball became slow to medium paced to get that going again. I thought we overplayed that a little bit. So a little bit of game understanding and awareness in and around that is something we can learn.”

Ireland conjured nine clean breaks to four, and the attacking shape and multitude of options for the ball carrier, whether attacking flat to the line or going out the back, was again eye-catching, although as impressive was the aggressive and unyielding line speed and tackle execution in defence. Here they made 109 tackles, missing only ten, and the statistics gave them six dominant tackles to none, although it seemed like a good deal more.

Speaking earlier last week, Sexton spoke of the pride the team takes in their defence and once again, this was also the aspect of Ireland’s display which pleased Farrell the most.

“It wasn’t how we had defended before that because our defence was good and it’s something we really pride ourselves on. People are talking about the way we’re playing the game at the moment but the best part of our game by a country mile is our defence.”

Farrell could also feel thoroughly vindicated in giving Mack Hansen his Test debut after just nine games for Connacht. From Catlemartyr to Connacht and to Canberra, Hansen’s eye-catching debut would have been celebrated loudly. The 23-year-old, whose mother Diana moved to Australia aged seven when Hansen’s grandfather emigrated there half a century ago, had a blinding introduction to international rugby.

All that was missing was a try, but true to his form in the URC (where he leads the competition for most defenders beaten and most metres and is third for most carries) here he had the fourth highest number of carries (ten) and the most metres in the game (152). Hansen also had a huge hand in Ireland’s first and fourth tries.

It won't always be like this and things undoubtedly fell Hansen's way, beginning with opposite man Louis Rees-Zammit having to have his ankle strapped after the warm-up. "He felt his ankle in the warm-up but he was okay to continue," said Wayne Pivac afterwards.

Then, in Ireland’s first play, with barely a minute gone, a Sexton grubber deflected toward Hansen and he reacted with typical sharpness to gather the ball above his head, escape Rees-Zammit and sprint up the touchline, chipping Liam Williams to earn Ireland their first attacking line-out.

He wasn't done either. Coming off his wing in trademark style as Ireland launched Caelan Doris at the Welsh '10' channel. Following further carries by Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Furlong, Hansen then reloaded back to the left, took Sexton's short pass from Tadhg Beirne's pull back and, having already weighed up his options, immediately spun a try-scoring skip pass over Rees-Zammit out for Bundee Aki to score in the corner. A finish with a Connacht flourish.

That play, along with many others, summed up why Hansen was picked along with Andrew Conway on the other wing. Farrell and Mike Catt like their wingers to have plenty of involvements. For all Robert Baloucoune's wondrous finishing abilities, this is something he needs to improve.

Cometh the hour cometh the best example of Hansen’s work-rate and ability to play heads-up rugby. When Andrew Porter ripped the ball from Gareth Thomas and Ronan Kelleher flicked it off the deck to Jamison Gibson-Park, Hansen was already haring in off his wing and alive to the possibilities before the scrumhalf passed to Johnny Sexton.

Calling for the ball, he straightened, sucked in Dan Biggar and linked with Aki to create a three-on-one. Aki moved the ball on to Garry Ringrose who straightened through the covering Nick Tompkins and Liam Williams to glide over for Ireland’s bonus point try.

Wales were missing a host of grandees with a total of 658 caps and this, an alarming lack of depth further exposed by their regions’ winless performances in Europe and their Under-20s shipping a half-century to their Irish counterparts.

While Ireland will be irked by the concession of a soft consolation try which ensured Wales did not suffer the indignity of being kept scoreless for the first time since the Six Nations came into being in 2000, it was a fitting reward for Taine Basham.

The explosive Dragons openside led his team in carries (13), metres (83) and tackles (20). Without him, they’d have sunk even further without trace.

Scoring sequence: 3 mins Aki try, Sexton con 7-0; 21 mins Sexton pen 10-0; (half-time 10-0; 44 mins Conway try, Sexton con 17-0; 51 mins Conway try, Sexton con 24-0; 60 mins Ringrose try 29-0; 75 mins Basham try, Sheedy con 29-7.

Ireland: Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD); Andrew Conway (Munster/Garryowen), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians), Mack Hansen (Connacht); Johnny Sexton (Leinster/St Mary's College, capt), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf); Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne), James Ryan (Leinster/UCD); Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary's College), Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD), Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere).

Replacements: Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) for Furlong (53 mins), Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) for Furlong, Peter O'Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) for Conan (both 53 mins), Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne) for Kelleher, James Hume (Ulster/Banbridge) for Conway (both 62 mins), Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf) for Sexton (64 mins), Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf) for Porter, Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) (both 66 mins), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen) for Gibson-Park (69 mins).

Wales: Liam Williams (Scarlets); Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets), Josh Adams (Cardiff), Nick Tompkins (Saracens), Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester); Dan Biggar (Northampton, capt), Tomos Williams (Cardiff); Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Ryan Elias (Scarlets), Tomas Francis (Ospreys); Will Rowlands (Dragons), Adam Beard (Ospreys); Ellis Jenkins (Cardiff), Taine Basham (Dragons), Aaron Wainwright (Dragons).

Replacements: Dewi Lake (Ospreys) for Elias, Gareth Thomas (Ospreys) for Jones, Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Rugby) for Francis, Ross Moriarty (Dragons) for Jenkins (all 53 mins), Gareth Davies (Scarlets) for T Williams (57 mins), Callum Sheedy (Bristol Bears) for Biggar (71 mins), Owen Watkin (Ospreys) for Carter (63 mins), Ben Carter (Dragons) for Rowlands (74 mins).

Sinbinned: Adams (49-59 mins).

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).