After a surprisingly comfortable win over Six Nations champions Wales in Dublin yesterday, Ireland captain Paul O’Connell insisted a Triple Crown win at Twickenham in two weeks will require a huge step up in intensity.
“A win in Twickenham is massive, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it before,” said the Ireland captain after yesterday’s victory, which follows last week’s defeat of Scotland. “ They’re an incredibly physical side, their line speed is very impressive and they put a lot of pressure on teams with that and they’re growing in confidence all the time. The competition gets a whole lot harder from here and going to Twickenham is going to be a massive step up.”
For all the talk about Wales’ superior fitness and hulking supermen it was O’Connell and his team-mates who donned the capes here yesterday, strangling a Welsh side that lacked the brains when their brawn failed to do the trick.
The Irish dominated this game from start to finish thanks to their own practical game plan and an ill-disciplined performance from Warren Gatland’s team, who coughed up 15 penalties - “ unacceptable” according to the coach afterwards.
The pre-match build-up also centred on some bloke called Brian whose package holiday to Australia last summer ended in bitter-sweet fashion, but with 20 Lions tourists shared between the starting XVs this was always going to be a game rich with sub-plots.
However, the battle lines were drawn in green paint. Jamie Heaslip, Connor Murray and O’Connell were edging their opposite numbers, with Toby Faletau’s aimless running typifying Wales’s limitations, while Mike Phillips, frustrated at the lack of quality supply to work with, became increasingly tetchy as his team lurched towards the inevitable defeat.
But the game’s first try was borne out of the compelling duel between full-backs Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny. With the score at 6-0 to Ireland after Jonathan Sexton had punished visiting transgressions, a line-out steal by Devin Toner led to Kearney launching a Garryowen towards Halfpenny.
Both men attacked the dropping ball at its highest point, but by the time they had hit the deck Kearney had ripped the ball away, leaving Sexton to prod a ball into the Welsh corner where Rhys Priestland had no option but to carry it into touch. From the line-out and a series of mauls, Chris Henry scored to give Ireland a 13-0 half-time lead.
Indeed the Irish line-out would prove near perfect as they reclaimed 16 of 17 while stealing two of Hibbard’s darts, and when Cian Healy was taken out early in the second half while supporting a lifter, Sexton chalked up another penalty for a 16-0 lead on 43 minutes.
Sexton (14 points, five kicks from six) then extended Ireland’s lead to 19-3 shortly after Halfpenny had struck his side’s only points.
Prior to this game the Principality were optimistic that they could run their hosts off the park, but using a measured kicking game from Joe Schmidt’s men cut off the power at source by playing tight and mauling Welsh legs into jelly. There were eight line-out mauls in total (which would account for 20 points), the final one allowing Paddy Jackson to scoot in for a late try.
Wherever Wales turned they found an aggressive green jersey waiting for them, and while Alun Wyn Jones was correct when he proclaimed during the week that Dublin was not Syria, Ireland still dominated the combat areas, forcing the visitors to commit more numbers to the ruck, and from there they lost their structure.
Irish back-row Peter O’Mahony got the nod as man of the match and while Murray’s ability to control the throttle of a game’s tempo is crucial, it is the input from new coach Schmidt that may prove decisive by the end of the championship.
He and Gatland share three Heineken Cups, two Challenge Cups and four domestic titles. The Wales coach may have the upper hand in the Test arena, claiming a Lions series win and two Grand Slams, but Schmidt’s ability to outwit “Warrenball” suggests he may even the score in the coming seasons having yesterday put a spoke in Welsh hopes of a championship hat-trick.
Ireland: R Kearney, A Trimble (F McFadden, 61), B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney, J Sexton (P Jackson, 75), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath, 66), R Best (S Cronin, 73), M Ross (M Moore, 55), D Toner, P O’Connell (capt; D Tuohy, 55; T O’Donnell, 65), P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip.
Wales: L Halfpenny, A Cuthbert, S Williams (L Williams, 17), J Roberts, G North, Rhys Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins (P James, 70), R Hibbard (K Owens, 61), A Jones (R Jones, 61), A Coombs, A W Jones (J Ball, 70), D Lydiate (J Tipuric, 70), S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU).