Halfpenny holds nerve to complete Wales' lucky escape

Ireland 21 Wales 23

The Aviva Stadium

Wales probably were not the best country to be moaning to about how costly a border-line tip-tackle decision can prove. Yet the boos which cut through the icy Dublin air last night showed there was a very big grievance concerning the last-minute penalty which allowed Leigh Halfpenny to sneak off with the spoils.

Paul O'Connell, the Ireland captain, was next to Stephen Ferris when he upended Ian Evans and didn't feel it justified. But referee Wayne Barnes put his hand up and so Irish jaws dropped as they realised they were about to lose their third consecutive match to their Celtic rivals. The 23-year-old Halfpenny conquered his quivering nerves and so the young men behind him jumped up and down. Jonathan Davies, with two tries, and the ever more incredible George North would have been particularly unfortunate to leave town as losers. However one looks at it, one rash moment decided it all.

In truth, Ferris' challenge was stupid. Not nearly as stupid, however, as the assault by Bradley Davies on Donnacha Ryan in the 65th minute when the replacement wasn't even in possession. Like Ferris, Davies was shown the yellow card, although the citing officer may have something to say about that. Expect a few months off for the Wales lock. Minimum. "It doesn't look fantastic on the video," said Warren Gatland. "We have to prepare for the worst."

In the event, they had escaped the worst. Davies should have seen red and Wales should not have been granted the full compliment for the final five minutes, in which they overhauled a six-point deficit. But the question on the lips of the green masses was should Ferris have been punished at all? Declan Kidney is the sort of character who wouldn't scream "injustice" while watching The Shawshank Redemption. He accepted it on the chin, so it took the typically frank honesty of Gatland to encapsulate the drama. "We got out of jail," said the Kiwi.

Yet he also made the point they were due the rub of the green. Their agonising one-point defeat to France in the World Cup semi-final springs instantly to mind. Indeed, much of this would have reminded him of the day in Auckland. The tip tackle, the premature departure of their inspirational captain, a kick or two which hit the post. But the big difference was they emerged as the winners and when one looks at their run of fixtures, with only England to come away, then the prospects seem bright. The last time Wales won their opening fixture away was in 2008. The last time they won in Dublin was 2008. And that year brought the Grand Slam.

Whoever was to lose would rue wasted opportunities. Yet as Kidney said: "If you let the other team have 60 percent of possession you're asking for trouble". Certainly, Wales should have taken far more from the opening half than a five-point deficit. They did have those two Rhys Priestland kicks which hit the uprights to bemoan, although the second was fairly simple.

Ireland conceded three tries, but early on their defence was summed up by a heroic tackle by the wing Andrew Trimble on Mike Phillips in the corner, while across the pitch, in the same sustained batch of phases, Donncha O'Callaghan got under Ryan Jones as the blindside went to touch it down, causing enough doubt in the TMO's mind. No matter, six minutes later, Jonathan Davies crashed over, just as he had against the Irish three months ago in the World Cup quarter-final. The outside centre's score came courtesy of a wonderful pass under and around the defender by Priestland. Davies' judgement in touching down before flying towards the hoardings was just as measured. It was an impressive beginning from the Welsh, but within five minutes at the end of the first half a mountain popped up in front of them. Jonathan Sexton was to kick four of his first five kicks and his accuracy with the sixth try of Rory Best's 55-cap international career handed them the momentum. The score came courtesy of a moment of magic from Tommy Bowe. He drifted over from his wing, glided past Alex Cuthbert before releasing the veteran hooker.

The break did no favours for Welsh morale, either. Sam Warburton had taken a knock and was replaced by Justin Tipuric. Sexton increased the lead to eight points and the scene took on an ominous glow. Yet North, who had been bashing lumps out of men in green all afternoon, had other ideas. "He was absolutely world class," said Gatland, doubtless reflecting on the charge and back of the hand pass which sent Davies on his way for his third try against Ireland in two games. By now Halfpenny had control of the kicking tee, and with his earlier penalty Wales had clawed it back to 15-13.But in a flip-flopping encounter, Sexton made it 16-15.

Then Davies' demonstration of classic dimwittery, responding to Ryan's rough clearing-out of the ruck, by picking him up and hurling him to the ground. Within three minutes, Bowe was diving over in the corner after some intellingent pick and drive from Ireland. The gap was six and the minutes remaining were just five.

Davies had only just trotted on to the pitch when North bulldozed over into the corner to reduce it to a point. O'Connell pointed the finger at himself for a missed tackle. Surely it was too late, with just four minutes on the clock? An inspired Wales charge from their own 22 put them in range and then came the Ferris transgression. Harsh? Perhaps. But on the whole, fair.

 

Ireland: Tries: Best, Bowe. Conversion: Sexton. Penalties: Sexton 3. Wales: Tries:: Davies 2, North. Conversion: Halfpenny. Penalties: Halfpenny 2.

Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), F McFadden (Leinster), G D'Arcy (Leinster),A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster);C Healy (Leinster),R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan (Munster),P O'Connell (Munster, capt), S Ferris (Ulster), S O'Brien (Leinster), C Heaslip (Leinster).Replacements: D Ryan (Munster) for O'Callaghan, 63; T Court (Ulster) for C Healy, 73; R O'Gara (Munster) for Sexton78; E Reddan (Leinster) for Murray, 78.

Wales: L Halfpenny (Blues); A Cuthbert (Blues), J Davies (Scarlets),J Roberts (Blues), G North (Scarlets); R Priestland (Scarlets),M Phillips (Bayonne); R Gill (Saracens), H Bennett (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys),B Davies (Blues), I Evans(Ospreys), R Jones (Ospreys), S Warburton (Blues, capt), T Faletau (Dragons). Replacements: J Tipuric (Ospreys) for Warburton, h-t; CJ Hook (Perpignan) forCuthbert, h-t;P James (Osprey) for A Jones, 69.

Referee: W Barnes (England)

Match facts

IRELAND Points WALES

2 Tries 3

1/2 Conversions 1/3

3/5 Penalties 2/4

0/1 Drop goals 0/0 Phases of play2/0 Scrums won/lost 3/0

5/0 Line-outs won/lost 10/4

6 Pens conceded 7

1 Mauls won 1

21 Ruck and drive 22

58 Ruck and pass 90

Team statistics

153 Passes completed 201

2 Line breaks 2

30 Possession kicked 22

9 Kicks to touch 5

127/9 Tackles made/missed 94/9

6 Offloads in tackle 3

8 Total errors made 4

Balls won

80 In open play 113

16 In opponent's 22 17

14 At set pieces 19

4 Turnovers won 2

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