That's better

IRELAND'S season is back on track.

Ireland 36 Wales 15

Supposedly resurgent Wales were blown away yesterday in front of an ecstatic packed house at Lansdowne Road and after all the fears generated by a poor performance in Paris, a new sense of optimism permeates Irish rugby.

The visit to Twickenham and the world champions on Saturday week is certainly a less daunting proposition and at the very least a respectable outcome should ensue if the side goes at the opposition from the start like it did yesterday and casts off the conservatism that inhibited the display against France.

The forwards were terrific, the backs cool, composed and confident, keeping the mistakes to a minimum and the pressure on when it mattered most.

"The Irish pack dominated us and their three tries from line-outs epitomised that fact," accepted Welsh coach Steve Hansen. "They mastered the fundamentals up front and the scoreboard is a fair reflection of the game. We knew this was a very good Irish pack that has been doing damage against a lot of opposition. On top of that I thought Brian O'Driscoll was the man of the match, we could have done with him pulling that hamstring of his again. He is the best centre in the world, he can run, pass and kick but he's also a good defender and a great man for pinching opposition ball."

It isn't often that an Irish side has scored four tries in the first half of a Six Nations game and then added another couple more in the second before the opposition got the first of their two.

By then, though, the game was over as a meaningful contest. Ireland took the foot off the accelerator and yet romped home by a margin of 21 points. The Welsh bubble didn't just burst, it exploded in the opening hour or so and it's now back to the drawing board for Steve Hansen and his men.

"We knew the key was to dominate the Welsh pack and I think we did that very efficiently," said coach Eddie O'Sullivan. "Our start put down a marker and we maintained high quality of possession and our defence was tight."

Skipper O'Driscoll made a triumphant return, denying that it was easy out there and instead commended the forwards for the "outstanding platform" they provided for the backs. Individually, Shane Byrne, John Hayes, Paul O'Connell and Keith Gleeson were magnificent; as a unit, the Irish pack was nothing short of awesome.

If there were disappointing elements to the Irish performance, they came in the way of injuries to Donnacha O'Callaghan and Gordon D'Arcy, two men with great potential in the international arena. The sad news is that O'Callaghan is unlikely to be fit for Twickenham on Saturday week because of damage to his medial ligament although he should be back before the end of the Six Nations. As for D'Arcy, the likelihood is that his back trouble will have cleared up in good time for England.

O'Sullivan is a great believer in a good start and his most ardent wishes were granted on this occasion. A devastating maul from a close range line-out take by Paul O'Connell in the first minute cleared the way for hooker Shane Byrne to charge over without a Welsh jersey in sight. "It was as if the Red Sea had opened up," quipped the coach. Ronan O'Gara converted and the trend had been set. Ireland were rampant and completely unfazed by Stephen Jones's penalty after five minutes.

O'Gara's lovely chip through saw O'Driscoll just foiled by Gareth Thomas but as it transpired, Wales were offside. This time, O'Connell took it off the top at the line-out, the back line clicked into action and O'Driscoll signalled his very welcome return by jinking past a tackle and spinning over for the try. O'Gara converted.

At 14-3, Ireland were sitting pretty, not least because of the supremacy of the pack and the quality of the midfield play by O'Gara, O'Driscoll and D'Arcy, superbly supported by Keith Gleeson who was light years ahead of the anonymous figure fortunate to retain his place after Paris.

A glorious break by D'Arcy cut the Welsh defence apart only for Tyrone Howe to be hand-tripped by Martyn Williams as he looked sure to score. But the Irish pressure was unrelenting. O'Gara made light of a Welsh turnover in front of their own posts on the half hour by charging down Iestyn Harris's attempted clearance and then winning the race for the touch down.

By now, there was no stopping Shane Byrne (later voted man of the match) and he went over for his second try on half time when Simon Easterby won a line-out at the back, the pack rumbled and Byrne blew Welsh scrum-half Gareth Cooper out of his way before diving over in the corner.

No wind, not even that bitterly cold one blowing into the Lansdowne Road end yesterday, was ever going to save the day for Wales now that they found themselves 24-3 in arrears. That message was loud and clear within seven minutes of the resumption when Peter Stringer's delightful inside pass was taken by the admirable Anthony Foley and he romped through another gaping hole in the Welsh defence.

Ireland's sixth came in the 52nd minute when Gleeson broke and raced forty metres into the Welsh 22 before delivering a perfect scoring pass to O'Driscoll. O'Gara converted and at 36-3 Wales were fearing a scoreline of devastating proportions.

To their credit, they took advantage of Irish relaxation to created a couple of tries for replacement centre Tom Shanklin, the second of which was converted by Jones. Ireland finished with fourteen players, Girvan Dempsey having been yellow carded by referee Joel Jutge for some obscure reason, but the crowd enjoyed the sight of big John Hayes landing a couple of thundering hits on some unsuspecting Welshman before happily wending their way home.

And Twickenham? "It will be another battle and a very big battle but one we'll worry about that when we come together on Tuesday," said O'Sullivan. "As for their game against Scotland, England mightn't have looked great but they worked away for the full eighty minutes and that's what we'll need to do."

IRELAND: G. Dempsey; S. Horgan, B. O'Driscoll, G. D'Arcy, T. Howe; R. O'Gara, P. Stringer; R. Corrigan, S. Byrne, J. Hayes, D. O'Callaghan, P. O'Connell, S. Easterby, K. Gleeson, A. Foley.

Replacements: M. O'Kelly for O'Callaghan, injured, 35 mins; K. Maggs for D'Arcy, injured, 56; F. Sheahan for Byrne 64; G. Easterby and D. Humphreys for Stringer and O'Driscoll both 76; V. Costello and S. Best for Foley and Corrigan both 79.

WALES: G. Thomas; R. Williams, S. Parker, I. Harris, S. Williams; S. Jones, G. Cooper; I. Thomas, R. McBryde, A. Jones, B. Cockbain, R. Sidoli, J. Thomas, M. Williams, D. Jones.

Replacements: G. Jenkins for A. Jones 31 mins; T. Shanklin for Parker 55; C. Sweeney for Harris 67; A. Popham for J. Thomas 69; D. Peel for Cooper 77.

Referee: J. Jutge (France).

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