Ireland crushed by Wales' power play

Ireland’s Six Nations title ambitions were crushed in Cardiff last night as Wales found redemption for consecutive losses with a passionate power play.

Ireland crushed by Wales' power play

To the delight of their supporters gathered under the roof of a sold-out Principality Stadium, the under-pressure Welsh lifted the gloom that had descended with a home defeat to England in round two and third-round loss in Scotland, two tries from wing George North and a late killer blow from replacement Jamie Roberts consigning Ireland to their second defeat of 2017.

It means Ireland can longer win the championship and England will be crowned champions for the second year in a row at Twickenham today if they win their Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland.

Ireland had hung in gamely but could not manage a try, their points coming via penalties.

Johnny Sexton after taking a hit against Wales. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie
Johnny Sexton after taking a hit against Wales. Pic: INPHO/James Crombie

Both starting line-ups were unchanged from their previous outings, though for different reasons. Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt keeping faith with the team that delivered a 19-9 victory over France a fortnight ago.

For Wales, caretaker coach Rob Howley the decision was not so much a vote of confidence but a challenge to his players to atone for their loss to Scotland at Murrayfield, a second defeat in succession following their Cardiff loss to England in round two.

Having not lost three in a row in the Six Nations since 2007 and not been beaten back-to-back at home since 2003, Wales certainly had a point to prove and it made for a frenetic opening quarter.

Ireland had conceded only four turnovers in play against France and enjoyed 64 per cent possession as they shut down Guy Noves’s side and kept them tryless but this was a more even affair, the ball staying in play for long periods as possession ebbed to and fro.

Ireland drew first blood as Johnny Sexton kicked the opening points with a sixth-minute penalty and there was an opportunity for further scores as Welsh ill-discipline produced another penalty in the 15th minute.

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

Captain Rory Best smelled blood and Sexton kicked to the corner rather than at the posts but the gamble backfired with the resulting five-metre lineout stolen and Ireland. Four minutes later and they were punished as George North finished a superb move off a Wales scrum, half-back Rhys Webb doing the damage in midfield with a neat exchange of passes with Jon Davies, before sending the ball wide right to Leigh Halfpenny who shifted it on to North in full flight, too strong and quick to be troubled by the attentions of both Keith Earls and Simon Zebo.

Dan Biggar missed the conversion and there was more concern for Ireland as Sexton was removed for a Head Injury Assesment, having shipped a bang to his face from the thigh of Davies as he covered a grubber kick on the deck.

Sexton would return but not before replacement Paddy Jackson had kicked Ireland back in front with a penalty, yet there was another problem for the visitors when Conor Murray went down in pain clutching his left arm having tackled North around the knees. He continued playing after treatment but was his passing and tackling were reduced to one-armed efforts.

One pass off his troubled left arm left Tadhg Furlong dropping the ball and from the scrum Ireland were on the back foot as Wales laid siege to their line once more, this time Sexton yellow-carded for killing the ball three minutes before half-time. Halfpenny slotted the penalty to push Wales back in front and the home side reached the interval in the driving seat, 8-6 ahead.

And so it continued into the second half. Ireland, with Zebo playing fly-half, had been knocked out of their rhythm and Wales continued to exploit their discomfort, Jamie Heaslip losing the ball off a low pass and the counter-attack aimed towards Murray in the corner, Leigh Halfpenny pouncing on the scrum-half and tackling him into touch.

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

From the lineout and maul, the Welsh made their numerical advantage count, Rhys Webb feeding George North on the blind side and the wing, under pressure for his defensive lapses against Scotland, reminded his critics of his attacking prowess with a second try of the game.

Halfpenny’s conversion stretched the home lead to 15-6 and Murray was finally withdrawn, replaced by Kieran Marmion, Sexton restoring the Irish to 15 men shortly after. It gave them some much-needed cohesion and lifted the pressure as they finally got out of their half.

A long period in the Welsh 22 earned a penalty which Sexton sent to the corner and from the lineout, Irish pressure won them another shot at goal, this time in front of the posts, the fly-half closing the gap to 15-9 in the 57th minute.

It should have been narrowed with a try on 70 minutes as Zebo tackled Halfpenny into touch in the left corner. Ireland drove the five-metre lineout to the line when Robbie Henshaw joined the push and the pack rumbled over by referee Barnes saw it differently, penalising Henshaw for obstruction as the centre had joined the maul in front of the ball and given his side illegal impetus.

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

Still Ireland pressed to get back into the contest, the noise levels rising even further under the Principality Stadium roof as Welsh supporters spurred on the home rearguard. Ireland got a five-metre scrum and once again looked primed to strike, this time Ringrose’s pass bouncing out of Earls’s grasp and Wales escaping with a penalty as their rivals strayed offside.

With five minutes left Ireland’s cause not helped by being pinned inside their own 22. It led to the killer blow as replacement Jamie Roberts used all his power to burst towards the posts, carrying an Irish body with him to score his side’s third try, Halfpenny’s conversion pushing even a losing bonus point beyond Ireland’s capabilities.

WALES:

L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, S Williams (J Roberts, 66), L Williams; D Biggar (S Davies, 79), R Webb (G Davies, 66); R Evans (N Smith, 66), K Owens (S Baldwin, 71), T Francis (S Lee, 70); J Ball (L Charteris, 62), A W Jones, capt; S Warburton, J Tipuric, R Moriarty (T Faletau, 66).

IRELAND:

R Kearney (T Bowe, 79); K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (P Jackson, 18-27, 79), C Murray (K Marmion, 44); J McGrath (C Healy, 59), R Best, capt (N Scannell, 79), T Furlong (J Ryan, 79); D Ryan, D Toner (I Henderson, 62); CJ Stander (P O’Mahony, 63), S O’Brien, J Heaslip.

Yellow card:

Sexton 37-47mins

Referee:

Wayne Barnes (England)

The 60 second report

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, Robbie 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 half backs 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 first half 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.

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.

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