YOU have to hand it to the Irish, who ended a drought that threatened to span no fewer than 12 matches when they recorded a dramatic victory here yesterday before a stunned Welsh audience. Could this really be happening, they asked, but the answer was a resounding yes as Wales slipped to their second Five Nations defeat of a topsy-turvy season.
Victory over England appeared light years away, the Welsh revival first killed off by Scotland and now by Ireland. But then we should have known better, because in Cardiff at least these are jolly green giants. And jolly good luck to them.
Ireland's last championship win had come against Wales at Lansdowne Road in 1990, but at the Arms Park there is just no holding them. Why, they last lost here as long ago as 1983, and yesterday there was just no stopping them.
This time they experimented with a new outside-half, Eric Elwood, the fifth to inherit the No 10 jersey in 12 months, and, after shaky beginnings, the new incumbent set his international career in motion with a haul of 11 points. Not bad for openers, not bad at all.
Nigel Walker celebrated the arrival of his first cap by not joining in the Welsh national anthem, which was a bit odd. Odder still was his excuse. 'I have this theory,' the Olympic hurdler said, 'that singing the national anthem before a match such as this dissipates the adrenalin - and I want to keep the lid on my emotions. I know I will find just listening inspiring enough.'
The Welsh, though, were preparing to sing his praises almost as soon as the anthem had died. Neil Jenkins had just seen the ball die from a penalty attempt taken from over 50 yards out on the right when, in the fourth minute, the Welsh attacked down the left. Mike Rayer next put in a chip to the corner and only a desperate Irish boot prevented Walker from marking his debut with a spectacular try.
The Welsh chorus, meanwhile, was open for business after 10 minutes when Jenkins took advantage of Terry Kingston's blatant offside to land a 35-yard penalty. At this stage the Welsh looked dominant, particularly in the line-out where they were pouring through on some untidy taps by the Irish that embarrassed poor Michael Bradley.
As for Elwood, the day's other debutant may initially have wished for the ground to open up and swallowed him. Finally given the ball and some space to go with it, he made a nervous hash of a drop goal attempt from 30 yards and the Irish forwards, who had just mounted a ferocious drive, hung their heads in disappointment.
They engaged gear again moments later, and while Elwood recovered quietly, Ciaran Clarke took the heat off with a snapshot, and it was a happier Ireland who saw the posts neatly bisected. That was well done and, following another penalty failure from Jenkins, the Irish struck in a more positive fashion on the half-hour.
It began with an Irish mis-kick which in turn was mis-fielded by Walker and before the Welsh could recover, the green tide arrived for Brian Robinson to pounce and score. Robinson had been pulled out of the A team on Thursday thanks to Neil Francis's calf injury, and here he was revelling in a try.
Elwood's composure was further helped when the stand-off stepped up and potted the conversion, and when Jenkins put over a penalty in the 35th minute he had the perfect reply - one of his own from 30 yards. That brought the half to a close, and lo and behold the Irish were sitting on a 13-6 lead.
This was increased by another three points when the Welsh forwards killed the ball bang in front of their posts, a perfect gift that Elwood readily accepted. Now Ireland had to weather a bombardment, the thump of Jenkins' boot making hearts beat faster in the stiller moments of a heated battle.
But Jenkins was having trouble getting it right and his sixth and seventh penalty attempts went begging before Wales breathed a sigh of relief when he succeeded from close range 13 minutes into the half. It heralded a Welsh roll and within two minutes the Irish were hit by a stunning move down the right.
Rayer set things up by getting the ball away just as he was flattened by a tackle and the pass found Ieuan Evans. The Welsh captain now miraculously made good his escape and from some 35 yards out and close to the touchline he weaved his way through the defence for a wonderful try.
Jenkins could not manage the conversion and poor Evans soon departed dazed. It was the turning point and Welsh frustration grew by the minute as the Irish clung on to their two-point lead. They needed some breathing space and were mightily relieved when it arrived.
Again they had Elwood to thank, the stand-off maintaining his 100 per cent place-kicking record by putting over a sweet penalty from 35 yards to the left of the Welsh posts. More than 20 minutes remained and four minutes of injury time must have seemed like an eternity, but Ireland were home and dry, and deservedly so.
WALES: M Rayer (Cardiff); I Evans (Llanelli, capt), M Hall (Cardiff), S Gibbs (Swansea), N Walker (Cardiff); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Jones (Swansea); R Evans (Llanelli), N Meek (Pontypool), H Williams-Jones (South Wales Police), G O Llewellyn (Neath), A Copsey (Llanelli), E Lewis (Llanelli), S Davies (Swansea), R Webster (Swansea). Replacement: A Clement (Swansea) for Evans, 58 min.
IRELAND: C Clarke (Terenure College); R Wallace (Garryowen), V Cunningham (St Mary's College), P Danaher (Garryowen), S Geoghegan (London Irish); E Elwood (Lansdowne), M Bradley (Cork Constitution, capt); N Popplewell (Greystones), T Kingston (Dolphin), P Clohessy (Young Munster), P Johns (Dungannon), M Galwey (Shannon), P O'Hara (Cork Constitution), B Robinson (London Irish), D McBride (Malone).
Referee: A McNeill (Australia).
Scores: Jenkins (pen, 10 min, 3-0); Clarke (drop goal, 13 min, 3-3); Robinson / Elwood (try / conv, 30 min, 3-10); Jenkins (pen, 34 min, 6-10); Elwood (pen, 37 min, 6-13); Elwood (pen, 45 min, 6-16); Jenkins (pen, 53 min, 9-16); Evans (try, 55 min,
14-16); Elwood (pen, 61 min, 14-19).
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