Byrne is put on notice as Wales hit self-destruct button

Ireland 27 Wales 12
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The Independent Online

Silly. That was the word of the day at Croke Park on Saturday. One coach was blaming the game's rulemakers for shifting the goalposts mid-Championship and the other was blaming his full-back for being just as numbskulled in shifting the momentum mid-game. The trouble for Warren Gatland is that Lee Byrne's crazy intervention left Wales in danger of the wooden spoon.

All the post-match chatter should have been about Brian O'Driscoll, winning his 100th cap and playing a heroic part in an immense defensive effort which eased the Irish to within sight of what would be a remarkable fifth Triple Crown in seven years. But with such an obvious villain in Byrne the attention inevitably switched. What made it far worse for Gatland was that Wales had been there before. Last month at Twickenham, Alun-Wyn Jones was sent to the sin bin for a moment of recklessness and Wales ended up conceding 17 points and, in effect, the game. This time it was "only" 10 points but the end product was the same. Gatland's reaction sounded ominous for Byrne as he spoke of "taking a stance". After relenting with his threat to drop Jones following the England setback, is Gatland ready to make an example of Byrne in his selection for next Saturday's finale against Italy?

"We need to speak to the coaches and discuss it with Lee," he said. "He's going to be pretty disappointed with himself, but I suppose at some stage you've got to take a stance – it was costly. When you see how costly it was at Twickenham and the same mistake is repeated and you get the same consequence, it is hugely frustrating."

To be fair to Byrne, he quickly held up his hands, writing in his Independent On Sunday column: "I let the boys down. I take full responsibility for my sin-binning. I don't need to be told how costly yellow cards can be, particularly after Twickenham."

However, he did claim his obstruction at a ruck in the 25th minute "was not deliberate". And, to be fairer still, he was hardly the only player who Craig Joubert pulled up at the breakdown. David Wallace and O'Driscoll, himself, were spoken to on more than one occasion and were considered fortunate. But then, if Joubert had started raising yellows for repeated infractions at the collision area he would have risked RSI.

Declan Kidney, the Irish coach, actually defended Joubert afterwards, pointing out that the South African was only applying the law as instructed. The fault, he insinuated, lay at the door of the IRB referee co-ordinator. In a meeting with Paddy O'Brien in the build-up Kidney was told there would be "a change of emphasis" in governing the breakdown. In the event, that amounted to the zero tolerance the referees have been showing in the southern hemisphere. Fair enough, the area is a mess and needs cleaning up. But in the middle of the Six Nations? "Changing the emphasis in mid-competition seems extraordinary, especially in a competition the size of this one," Kidney said.

Yet it would hardly mar the Ireland celebrations – because there were hardly any. This was the result they expected and as Gatland admitted they were "very, very clinical" in achieving it. Wales won the battle in terms of territory and possession, but everywhere else they were lucky to finish second. Their line-out is a joke, their defence is in disarray, their morale is apparently rock-bottom.

They have missed key personnel in Gethin Jenkins, Mike Phillips and dare it be said, Gavin Henson, for the whole of this campaign and have also suffered the loss of three other Lions in Alun-Wyn Jones, Ryan Jones and Andy Powell. Marry that with a newly-nurtured love for the self-destruct button and the upshot is five defeats in their last seven Six Nations games.

So the Kiwi would feel entirely justified in making radical changes for the Azzurri's visit, although any overhaul may be tempered by the realisation that if Italy win and Scotland do the unthinkable at Croke Park the wooden spoon will be coming to Cardiff for the first time in seven years. On the evidence of Saturday the latter is less likely than the former. Ireland were no great shakes, but were still good value for their points. Keith Earls took his tries wonderfully, as did the man-of-the-match Tomas O'Leary.

But the stat which said so much was that Wales passed the ball a staggering 187 times and managed just the one line break.

Ireland: Tries Earls 2, O'Leary; Penalties Sexton 3; Drop-goal Sexton. Wales: Penalties S Jones 4.

Ireland: G Murphy (Leicester); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: R Kearney (Leinster) for D'Arcy, 23;T Buckley (Munster) for Hayes, 73; R O'Gara (Munster) for Earls, 77; L Cullen (Leinster) for O'Connell, 78; S Jennings (Leinster) for Ferris, 78; E Reddan (Leinster) for O'Leary, 78.

Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); L Halfpenny (Blues), J Hook (Ospreys), J Roberts (Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), R Rees (Blues); P James (Ospreys), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), B Davies (Blues), L Charteris (Dragons), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Williams (Blues, capt), G Delve (Gloucester). Replacements: H Bennett (Ospreys) for M Rees, 56; I Gough (Ospreys) for Davies, 59, D Peel (Sale) for R Rees, 61; A Bishop (Ospreys) for Byrne, 63; S Warburton (Blues) for M Williams, 66; R Gill (Saracens) for James, 77.

Referee: C Joubert (SA).