Irish hold whip hand

Five Nations' Championship: Wales are left clutching the wooden spoon as Mullin's try secures a hard-fought victory
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THE IRISH had a pretty successful week at the Cheltenham Festival, and their good fortune remained with them when they crossed the Severn to enjoy the fringe theatre at the Arms Park.

Whatever the euphoric travellers thought of the play, and there weren't many good words to say for it, they certainly enjoyed the conclusion - a win by a goal, a drop-goal and two penalties to four penalties, which saved them from their eighth wipe-out in the championship.

Instead the result left Wales with only the second blank in their history. Most worrying for them is that both have come in this decade, deeply depressing in the run-up to the World Cup. The fact is that these were two poor sides, playing a game of unusual navety and artlessness, and except for short-term satisfaction it hardly mattered who won.

Even before the game began the visitors' optimism didn't seem to be shared by their hosts, who had seen their team decline from champions to also- rans in less than three months. As recently as the autumn Wales could still pride themselves on the four victories they achieved to qualify for the World Cup, and the generally successful tour of Canada and the South Seas. Only the failure to settle an old score with Western Samoa sounded a warning that the Welsh revival might not be as convincing as they had wished to believe.

But then came the disconcerting visit of South Africa and the New Year plunge. The result was a city quieter than one can ever remember on an international Saturday, and although the stands finally filled and the crowd were in good voice, the home supporters greeted the final whistle with a round of deep silence.

The one interesting, if mysterious, incident came in the first half when the announcement came over the loudspeakers: "Attention all police officers and stewards, Mr Rugby is in the stadium." Some 10 minutes later the announcement came that the same Mr Rugby, whoever he might be - codename for some troublemaker perhaps - had left the stadium. You had to assume that, with a title like that, he had departed in disgust.

The wind, which had been strong enough to break shop windows in Cardiff the day before, had dropped to a light breeze, and there was even a hint of sunshine as Eric Elwood tried to put Ireland ahead in the second minute with a penalty-kick from just inside the Welsh half. But that attempt failed, as did a simpler one which fell to Neil Jenkins, and the more promising moves came in open play. None of them lived up to their promise however.

For Wales, Richie Collins charged down a relieving kick by Elwood, but the forwards couldn't home in on the loose ball quickly enough, and soon afterwards Mike Hall failed to find Ieuan Evans with his pass when the Irish line was invitingly close and lightly guarded. For Ireland, Simon Geoghegan went off in hot pursuit of a rolling ball only to be held off by Neil Jenkins just long enough for it to trickle over the dead-ball line.

In the end it was the same Jenkins who opened the scoring for Wales with a penalty from a little to the side of the posts, and this setback for Ireland was followed by another when, after 21 minutes, Elwood, knocked unconscious in a tackle by Collins, was taken off on a stretcher.

His replacement was Paul Burke, who had lost his place in the Irish side after two caps because he couldn't match Elwood's consistency in kicking nor his success in getting the backs moving. Here he was to confound his critics with an excellent impromptu drop-goal in his fourth minute on the field, a penalty five minutes later, which put Ireland ahead, and a conversion of a try which really lifted spirits after the tedium of the first half-hour.

It came from a typically strong, nostalgic run by the 31-year-old Brendan Mullin, sent on his way by the intervening right- wing Richard Wallace.

Ireland now had 10 points in hand, and at last Wales were provoked into setting up some prolonged pressure. A long passing movement, with eight or so players handling, shaped up well until it ran out of room, but almost immediately Jenkins opened up the Irish line only to see the ball dropped by Matthew Back.

All Wales achieved from this spell of attack was a second penalty by Jenkins just before half-time. This looked like being more than mere consolation when Jenkins added two further penalties in the first 11 minutes of the second half. This left Ireland only a point ahead at 13- 12, with Wales believing in their luck again. The play on both sides was so lacking in accomplishment, and so loaded with mistakes, that anything was possible.

The denouement that came at last was an anti-climax but had a certain poetic justice to it. Burke was tackled late and heavily on the Welsh 22. Although the Irish thought of running the penalty, their substitute stand-off rose to claim the ball and, full of confidence now, kicked it firmly between the posts. Ireland were now four points clear, and Wales needed a try in the 12 minutes left. And by this time nothing seemed more unlikely.

Wales: M Back (Bridgend); I Evans (Llanelli, capt), M Hall (Cardiff), N Davies (Llanelli), W Proctor (Llanelli); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Jones (Swansea); M Griffiths (Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea), S John (Llanelli), P Davies (Llanelli), G Llewellyn (Neath), A Gibbs (Newbridge), R Collins (Pontypridd), E Lewis (Cardiff).

Ireland: J Staples (Harlequins); R Wallace (Garryowen), B Mullin (Blackrock College), P Danaher (Garryowen), S Geoghegan (Bath); E Elwood (Lansdowne), N Hogan (Terenure College); N Popplewell (Wasps), T Kingston (Dolphin, capt), P Clohessy (Young Munster), G Fulcher (Cork Constitution), D Tweed (Ballymena), A Foley (Shannon), E Halvey (Shannon), P Johns (Dungannon).

Replacement: P Burke (Cork Constitution) for Elwood, 21min.

Referee: R Megson (Scotland).