This is how Grand Slams are won and lost. Ireland’s green machine rolled into their holiday home on the Welsh coast, where they had won 11 of the previous 14 visits, found the natives had taken possession and were ready to deflate legitimate Irish ambitions of an unbeaten Six Nations Championship.
Not without trying, though. At the end of a wonderfully-contested match, Ireland went yet again for a close-range line-out from which, if they managed a converted try, they could draw the game. That would have earned the precious point which might have helped them to the championship after next weekend’s finale against Scotland.
Their one try, a penalty try awarded when Wales collapsed a driving maul, had already come from such a tactic but once more the Welsh defence proved too much. Paul O’Connell, the warrior joining the ranks of rugby centurions, made the catch but was held up and the ball turned over. All Wales breathed a sigh of relief and greeted the final whistle and Sam Warburton’s man-of-the-match award with acclaim.
Warburton, setting a Welsh record with his 34th appearance as captain, described it as one of the best days of his rugby career and, after the disappointing home defeat by England on the opening weekend of the championship, Wales are back in title contention. “You get the feeling, before certain matches, that the players, everyone, are particularly focused,” he said. “We were desperate to win”.
But for Ireland, who finish against Scotland, hopes of a third Grand Slam are over and Joe Schmidt, their coach, was not entirely happy with the officiating of Wayne Barnes. “There was some stringent refereeing of the tackle area and we didn’t respond to that,” he said. “The speed of the rucks in the second half differed from that of the first and we went out expecting to win penalties there. We didn’t achieve that.”
For what seemed the entire third quarter, Ireland pounded the home line, once going through 32 phases in the home 22 for no points, close though Tommy Bowe came. Remarkably Luke Charteris, the lanky Wales lock, made 37 tackles during the match (one short of the world record by an individual) and the tight five as a unit made a massive 132.
Then, as though a switch had been thrown, Wales were camped in the Irish 22, throwing everything into attack until Scott Williams, the Scarlets centre who had been on the field as a replacement for Jamie Roberts for only two minutes, scored. He dummied a path between Bowe and Jamie Heaslip and offered confirmation that this could, indeed, be Wales’s day. Roberts left after a blow to the head and Richard Hibbard, the replacement hooker, will also have to undergo concussion protocols during the coming week.
Two significant elements of Ireland’s game fell apart. One was the line-out, where they were caned throughout the first half; the other was the form of their much-lauded half backs, Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray. Against England, they deserved the plaudits.
Here Sexton endured a nightmare first quarter, missing a kick at goal (and he was fortunate that an unnecessary high tackle by Scott Baldwin gave him a second chance moments later), missing Jonathan Davies on the break and putting a restart into touch.
When a pass from his scrum-half hit him in the chest, his head turned the other way to organise his midfield, his cup of woe ran over. The efficiency which had carried Ireland so far had gone, the aerial tactics used with such success against England had been stolen by Wales; Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny kicked high and Wales chased to such effect that they recovered at least fifty per cent of the kicks.
Wales laid the foundations with four Halfpenny penalties in the first 14 minutes, the fourth after the scrum that cost them the services of Samson Lee, with a damaged left ankle. Gethin Jenkins pulled a hamstring and did not re-emerge after the interval so, for much of the second half, Wales fielded a reshaped front row, one of them debutant Rob Evans.
Ireland shook themselves, Sexton kicked his first penalty after Baldwin’s offence and then kicked to the corner for a line-out. Devin Toner stood at the tail and was mortified Warburton stole the throw. It was no coincidence; seconds later, another penalty to Ireland, another line-out and Charteris rose for the steal.
Sexton punished Warburton’s yellow-card offence and, though Wales patiently worked the position from which Dan Biggar dropped a 40-metre goal, Sexton kicked a 12-metre penalty. But the scoreless third quarter hurt Ireland and though they responded with their penalty try, Jordi Murphy was penalised and Halfpenny kicked his fifth goal.
With time running out, Davies became the second Welshmen to receive a yellow card but he, like the entire squad, had more than earned his corn by then.
Wales: L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, J Roberts (S Williams, 60), L Williams; D Biggar, R Webb (M Phillips, 69); G Jenkins (R Evans, 41), S Baldwin (R Hibbard, 57), S Lee (A Jarvis, 14), L Charteris, A W Jones (J Ball, 72), D Lydiate (J Tipuric, 69), S Warburton (capt), T Faletau.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (I Madigan, 75), C Murray (E Reddan, 64); J McGrath (C Healy, 57), R Best (S Cronin, 64), M Ross (M Moore, 64), D Toner (I Henderson, 64), P O’Connell (captain), P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip (J Murphy, 72).
Referee: W Barnes (England).
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