Ireland arrived at Cardiff reinforced by so many trappings of supposed superiority that even the locals had all but given up on a home win.
The opposition topped just about every Six Nations table there was to top based on the first three rounds of the tournament. They had the most tries, the most carries, the most clean breaks and the most passes.
Hadn’t they also won the most rucks, gained the most metres, beaten the most defenders? Indeed they had, not to mention missing the fewest tackles and conceding the fewest penalties.
Ireland had the most of just about everything and there were times when it looked as though they had been overburdened by the load. And that was before the rugby gods decided to even up the score by playing a dirty trick on, of all people, Ireland’s most important player.
Johnny Sexton paid the price for what they call taking a hit for the team, an illegal intervention that prevented Jonathan Davies scoring just before half-time. The consequent hit suffered by the 14 Sexton left behind proved infinitely more damaging and ultimately, irreparable.
Ireland had gone so desperately close so often that in the end Sexton’s blunder in allowing Taulupe Faletau to charge down his clearing kick merely cleared the way for Ireland to take the full count.
Wales found the nous and the adventure lacking from earlier matches to ensure Ireland paid an extortionate price for their indiscipline, one area which had put them a cut above the rest, until last night. The only statistic that mattered left Ireland a distant second. Too many of their big guns, most notably Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, suffered by comparison to their opposite numbers.
Wales’ triumphant shot at redemption left them reflecting at one negative consequence of averting the national crisis over the threat of a third straight defeat. They have cleared the way for England to retain their title provided they beat Scotland at Twickenham this afternoon.
In doing so they obliterated the prospect of Ireland being 80 minutes away from winning a major title in Dublin for more than 30 years. England at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday has been reduced to the relatively small matter of denying the old enemy a world record 19th straight win, always assuming they make it 18 today, a dangerous assumption given that the holders have been poor in each of the three rounds.
Having won all three Six Nations’ titles on the road, in Cardiff (2009), Paris (2014), Edinburgh (2015), Ireland’s wait to win one at home goes on.
Because too many melted in the heat of the Millennium Stadium, the chance of repeating history next week has gone. Ireland still haven’t won the title on home soil since Michael Kiernan’s dropped goal secured the 1985 Five Nations against England in Dublin.
Cardiff proved to be a painful staging post for the half backs upon whom the Lions will base their tactical plan to outwit the All Blacks this summer. And that was before Sexton suffered the anguish of being sent to the bin.
No sooner had Leinster’s supreme playmaker been floored by one blow than Conor Murray was taking the full count from another. An accidental knee to the head required Sexton to leave for the obligatory concussion check which meant he had spent 10 minutes away from his post before the yellow card forced him to sit out another 10.
There were times though when Wales went out of their way to make it easy for him. Dan Biggar, faced by a rival who inhabits a different planet from all other Lions’ fly-half contenders, threw him not one intercept pass but two, each so perfect that Sexton grabbed both without needing to change his stride.
Somehow, Wales got away with it on a night when their gigantic wing woke from a Murrayfield muddle bad enough for defence coach Shaun Edwards to break the code of omerta and criticise him publicly. George North had already punished Ireland with the opening try when Murray stopped another careering run and almost broke an arm in the process.
North, too feeble for words against Scotland a fortnight earlier, delivered the big game he sorely needed. On a night when Justin Tipuric made a mighty claim to be the Lions openside and Rhys Webb to be the back-up scrum-half, it was just Ireland’s luck that North took it out on them.
The downside about representing a country where rugby really does matter is that forgiveness tends to be in short supply. How short, from a Welsh perspective, can be gauged from an embarrassingly spontaneous sing-song at Dublin airport one winter’s morning 11 years ago.
A group of visiting fans, cheesed off at the previous afternoon’s 31-5 pasting by Ireland at Lansdowne Road, spotted the team heading for the departure gate, and went into full voice with an impromptu version of He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands. The words ringing out above the throng made the sheepish players look even more so. With a captive audience, the fans kept belting the words out: “We’ve got the worst team in the world.”
There had been fears all week the spectre of a third successive defeat would provoke a similar kind of protest from a disenchanted public. Even Gareth Edwards sensed the anxiety: “We might, just might, spring a surprise.” After a series of hair-raising alarms, it came to pass.