Wales serve Ireland brutal defeat in Six Nations battle

Wales serve Ireland brutal defeat in Six Nations battle
Johnny Sexton after taking a hit against Wales. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie

Wales 22 Ireland 9

George North scored two tries as fired-up Wales floored Ireland in Cardiff - and left England one win away from retaining the Six Nations title.

England will secure Six Nations silverware for a second successive season if they beat Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday after North blew away their closest challengers.

Ireland needed victory to set up a potential title decider against England in Dublin next week, but Wales had other ideas as they triumphed 22-9 and claim a biggest win against Ireland since 1983.

Full-back Leigh Halfpenny added a penalty and two conversions, while substitute centre Jamie Roberts touched down two minutes from time as Ireland played almost a quarter of the match without their fly-half talisman Johnny Sexton, who went off for a head injury assessment and was later sin-binned.

Sexton booted two penalties and Paddy Jackson one, but Wales profited from Sexton's yellow card, scoring 10 points while he was temporarily sidelined, and it left Ireland with too much to do.

England now know that victory over the Scots would equal New Zealand's world record of 18 successive Test wins and see them crowned Six Nations champions once more.

Wales boss Rob Howley was criticised for retaining the entire team and replacements' bench following defeat against Scotland two weeks ago, but his players responded magnificently as they staved off what would have been a 10-year low of three successive Six Nations losses in one season.

Ireland made a strong start, not only going in front through Sexton's sixth-minute penalty, but forcing Wales back through through the sheer ferocity of their attacking game.

CJ Stander of Ireland evades the tackle of Leigh Halfpenny of Wales. Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
CJ Stander of Ireland evades the tackle of Leigh Halfpenny of Wales. Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Sexton opened the scoring after Wales scrum-half was punished for a high tackle on Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw, and Wales continued to not help themselves as fly-half Dan Biggar saw a pass intercepted by Keith Earls and the visitors again motored up field.

But Wales began to give as they got during a thunderous opening punctuated by some bone-crunching tackles, notably Henshaw's hit on Wales prop Rob Evans, before Sexton departed for a head injury assessment after Wales centre Jonathan Davies' knee accidentally caught him in the face.

Sexton's left eye showed signs of swelling before he had even left the pitch, and his replacement Paddy Jackson barely had time to settle before Wales conjured a magnificent 20th-minute try.

Livewire Webb broke clear in midfield following a lineout, then linked with centre Scott Williams before firing out a long pass to Halfpenny, who sent North powering over for his 29th Wales touchdown in 68 Tests.

It was comfortably Wales' best try of the tournament, and although Halfpenny sent the touchline conversion attempt wide, the home side led 5-3 after a pulsating opening quarter.

Garry Ringrose is tackled by Rhys Webb. Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose is tackled by Rhys Webb. Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Jackson then kicked Ireland in front just before Sexon returned following a nine-minute absence, but Wales finished the first-half on top and Halfpenny kiched them ahead as Sexton's eventful night continued.

On this occasion he was yellow-carded by referee Wayne Barnes for killing possession on Ireland's line following a tackle on centre Jonathan Davies, who almost scored when Webb's clever kick found Liam Williams, before Halfpenny's pass sent Davies to within touching distance.

Sexton looked perplexed at the decision, and Halfpenny's simple penalty made it 8-6, ending a gripping 40 minutes that enthralled a capacity 74,000 crowd.

And Wales were in no mood to ease up, as they increased their lead just four minutes into the second period.

After gaining a lineout deep inside Ireland's 22, the forwards drove relentlessly before Webb had a simple task of sending an unmarked North over for his 30th Wales try.

Halfpenny added the conversion, and Ireland had it all to do, trailing 15-6 and their Six Nations title hopes slowly but surely beginning to ebb away.

Sexton cut the gap with his second penalty, and that was the cue for Ireland to put together a sustained spell of pressure which tested Wales' defence s both coaches began to make substitutions at regular intervals.

But Ireland blew a golden opportunity when Henshaw was penalised just inches from Wales' line, and the home side prevailed, despite the visitors again laying siege during a frantic finale, as Roberts marked his 90th cap by finishing them off.

Wales' George North celebrates scoring their second try. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie
Wales' George North celebrates scoring their second try. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie

Quotes

Alyn Wyn Jones is many peoples’ favourite to lead the Lions in New Zealand this summer and he led Wales superbly last night to probably do enough to clinch that coveted role. He had taken the brunt of the criticism fired at his Welsh team after the defeat by Scotland but they certainly came up trumps last night.

“We owed this win to a large proportion of the Welsh people in the stadium tonight”, said the great hearted second-row.

“Secondly, we owed it to ourselves. If we were honest, we haven’t done ourselves justice in our last two matches and that was our priority tonight.”

Rhys Webb is Conor Murray’s chief rival for the scrum-half position on the Test team against the All Blacks and for the seventy minutes he was on the pitch, he certainly justified that rating. He was voted man of the match and his superb pass played a major part in the first of George North’s two tries.

George North of Wales celebrates after scoring their first try.
George North of Wales celebrates after scoring their first try.

“Our last three games have been decided by small margins so we knew we were only one big performance away from winning a game and I was proud of the way the boys tried for the full eighty minutes and put in the hell of a shift to get a result over a quality Irish side”, said Webb. “We owe a lot to our coaches, to believe in our ability, and we certainly showed glimpses of what we can do and there is certainly a lot more to come from us. People have been writing us off week in, week out, but we haven’t become a bad team overnight”.

Keith Wood on BBC wasn’t too happy with the penalty against Robbie Henshaw that deprived Ireland of a potentially match winning try. The former Ireland captain described referee Wayne Barnes’s call as “very tight”. On such small margins are games like this – and it will surely revive the oft expressed belief that referees’ have too much say in deciding the outcome of big games such as this.

Ronan O’Gara stated on RTE that “Wales were comfortable in that game, I didn’t think they’d be beaten when 15-6 became 15-9. Look at the Welsh players at the end, the win was never in doubt in their mind”.

“Wales are a quality side but we have only ourselves to blame”, acknowledged Irish captain Rory Best. “Not to score a try is very disappointing for us, in fact it is devastating. The score obviously didn’t reflect the game but we had chances and didn’t take them and there’s nobody more disappointed than the boys in the dressingroom”.

Joe Schmidt claimed “it was one hundred miles an hour and you never knew what was going to happen. I really admired the way the guys came back but when you get frustrated, you try too hard and I think that’s what happened. And in the end, we set ourselves up to be scored against”.

Match in a minute

Key moment: Ireland were still chasing a come from behind win with 11 minutes to go when driving maul took them over the line from five metres out, only for referee Wayne Barnes to penalise the visitors, Robie Henshaw ruled to have obstructed Wales having joined the drive in front of the ball to give his side an unfair push.

Talking point: Ireland were without their first-choice out-halves for much of this game, Johnny Sexton off for an HIA and then a yellow card in the first half while Conor Murray played with one arm for the closing minutes of the opening period and was withdrawn on 44 minutes. Boy did Ireland miss them.

Key man: That CJ Stander was replaced on 63 minutes will need some explanation because the flanker was imperious for Ireland during his time on the pitch. Wales were good value for their win, not least scrum-half Rhys Webb, whose sniping play created the first Welsh try and his drive kept the home side motoring.

 Wales' Leigh Halfpenny celebrates winning.
Wales' Leigh Halfpenny celebrates winning.

Ref watch: Wayne Barnes issued a yellow card to Johnny Sexton just before half-time as Ireland were trapped on their own line, the fly-half judged to have deliberately killed the ball at a ruck. Lip readers will have seen Sexton voice his obvious displeasure at the decision but Barnes seemed to have made the right call. Yet it was only Ireland's second penalty concession of the half, Wales keeping the English referee far busier, although Ireland's fewer indiscretions, not least Henshaw's proved more costly.

Yellow card: J Sexton 37-47

Penalties conceded: Wales 10 Ireland 4

Injuries: Scrum-half Conor Murray struggled for the last 10 minutes of the first half with an injury to his left arm as a result of a tackle on George North. He looked in serious pain and received lengthy treatment before resuming play, his passing and tackling clearly hampered by the problem, Murray finally withdrawn after half-time.

Joe Schmidt will hope to have Jared Payne back in contention for next week as an experienced option at either outside centre or full-back.

Next up: One last push as the 2017 RBS 6 Nations Championship heads into its final round next weekend. Ireland welcome England to the Aviva on Saturday, where they could be meeting team chasing a world record 19 consecutive Test victories unless Scotland bring their run to an end at Twickenham today. Alas there will be no title for Ireland chase.

Ireland ratings

Rob Kearney – 5

Dealt with the bombs from early on but offered nothing going forward on a night when Ireland really needed their experienced men to deliver in spades. Will be lucky to hold his place for the final game.

Keith Earls – 6

Wales targeted his wing constantly and while the Limerick man dealt with a lot, he will feel he should have prevented George North from scoring the first, notwithstanding he did well to get across to make the tackle. Made little ground going forward.

Garry Ringrose – 5

Big night on the learning curve and while he made his tackles will now realise how hard it is to crack openings at this level. His poor inside pass to Earls with six points between them five minutes from the end will not make easy watching in the review.

Robbie Henshaw – 6

As usual his tackling was brilliant and his use of the boot created openings but his decision to join the maul from an offside position when Ireland looked like they were going over any way eleven minutes from time will haunt him.

Simon Zebo – 7

Busy night, even taking over the restarts with Jonathan Sexton in the bin, and had his hands full keeping an eye on the much-improved George North, but delivered more than most in a backline which struggled to make headway.

Jonathan Sexton – 6

In the wars throughout, targeted by Wales from the outset, off for a HIA and then got himself binned before the break and in between lofted mainly brilliant Garryowens and all the usual trimmings. Clearance blocked for the third Welsh try which wrapped it up.

Conor Murray - 6

There wasn’t much doubt who the Lions scrum-half would be after half an hour, but the Limerick man’s effectiveness was limited by an awkward tackle on George North after 31 minutes before his belated withdrawal. A lot of damage done while Murray struggled on. And then Rhys Webb took over and greatly enhanced his Lions’ hopes.

Jack McGrath – 7

His early rip on Alun Wyn Jones set the tone for Ireland’s bright start, great in the loose, made a dozen tackles and did all that was required of him in an energy-snapping encounter.

Rory Best – 5

Lineout functioned without the confidence required to deliver punishment at this level and his contribution in the loose was below the standard normally accustomed to him. Several poor team calls, should have opted for points.

Tadhg Furlong – 7

Hard to believe he’s been around at this level just over a year. Solid in the scrum and in every other facet but will be kicking himself for knocking on after Keith Earls half-blocked a clearance from Dan Biggar after 66 minutes as Ireland piled on the pressure trailing 15-9.

Donnacha Ryan – 7

Worked his socks off, did his primary jobs and his hand-off on North was the sort of moment which can lift a team. Could hardly be faulted for this defeat, 17 tackles and 25 metres made told its own story.

Devin Toner – 7

Like Ryan, did most of the primary stuff well, tackled and carried well and should have be exploited more in the lineout. Effected 13 tackles

CJ Stander – 7

Typical, empty-the-tank performance from Stander, especially when Ireland needed leadership in the second quarter when Wales were on top, but he too found it difficult to crack a hole in the home defence.

Sean O’Brien – 6

Mixed the good and the bad, mopping up some superb ball on the floor but then guilty of some wayward passing and coughed up a couple of penalties at crucial stages.

Jamie Heaslip – 5

Not the way he would have wanted to mark his 100th Test appearance but was largely ineffective throughout on a night when Ireland’s big men just did not deliver when it mattered.

Replacements – Kieran Marmion made a huge impression when he came on, highlighting the folly of not bringing him in earlier when Murray was clearly injured. Paddy Jackson did all required in his cameo role but other than Peter O’Mahony, no big impact came from the bench.

Wales Dan Biggar and Jonathan Sexton of Ireland.
Wales Dan Biggar and Jonathan Sexton of Ireland.

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