A dominant first-half performance helped Ireland secure a bonus-point victory against Wales to end their Principality Stadium curse in style and get their 2023 Guinness Six Nations campaign off to a flying start.
It was a first championship win in the Welsh capital since Brian O’Driscoll led Declan Kidney’s team victory in 2013 and also means Ireland avoid a defeat which would have brought unwanted comparisons with their losing start to the last World Cup year in 2019 when England beat them in Dublin on the opening day and set in train a disastrous end to the Joe Schmidt era.
No such problems for current head coach Andy Farrell with tries from Caelan Doris and James Ryan, converted by captain Johnny Sexton, sending Ireland into a 14-0 lead after eight minutes with the skipper adding two penalties and a conversion of James Lowe’s 20-minute intercept try to hand the visitors a healthy 27-3 half-time lead.
Wales, under new management with Warren Gatland back at the helm had not delivered on their expected bounce but they kept Ireland occupied in defence for the first 30 minutes of the second half, although they only managed a 45th-minute try from Liam Williams, converted by Dan Biggar.
When full-back Williams was sin-binned in the 65th minute for a high contact on Sexton, forcing off Sexton soon after, it allowed Ireland back into the contest and Josh van der Flier’s 71st-minute try was his side’s score brought their first points in 45 minutes. The bonus point came too and Ireland were home and hosed.
Farrell had revelled in the disruption of losing captain Johnny Sexton to injury before the final game of 2022, handing a first start to Munster rookie Jack Crowley at fly-half and bringing back Ross Byrne as bench cover for his first cap in 18 months. The head coach had been rewarded with a victory in Dublin over Australia, praising his players’ adaptability to problem-solve on the hoof and deal with the upset to their best-laid plans as builds layer upon layer of confidence in a squad that has reached the top of the world rankings.
Whether he would have appreciated quite so much the loss of two of his matchday 23 in Cardiff as starting scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park and replacement prop Cian Healy were forced out with injuries before kick-off is open to debate. He had already lost the services of first-choice tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong when his recovery from a calf injury came up short for selection on Thursday and this was a championship opener away from home, under the Principality Stadium roof with a 73,971 ready to roar on the hoped-for reboot of a Wales side back under the charge of Warren Gatland.
There will have been some assurance that he could turn to a Test centurion in Conor Murray to start in Gibson-Park’s place, with Craig Casey moving onto the bench, while Healy’s place among the replacements went to Munster loosehead Dave Kilcoyne , set for his 49th Ireland appearance. Yet whether the impact on Ireland’s desire for the high-tempo pace set at number nine would be altered by the absence of Gibson-Park was perhaps the bigger was the question as Ireland kick-off.
It did not take long to get an answer, Murray instrumental in Ireland’s fast start after Lowe’s kick into the Welsh backfield forced an error from full-back Liam Williams. From the resulting lineout, the Irish generated quick ball through the phases, Murray and Sexton varying the points of the attack with will carriers providing clever lines, James Ryan and Andrew Porter prominent among them. The door was unlocked when Murray fired the final pass to Doris, who powered over for the opening try on two minutes, Sexton converting.
If Wales supporters expect a bounce from Gatland’s arrival as Wayne Pivac’s successor after a terrible autumn in which their side was beaten at home by Georgia, they were instead offered a reminder of the gap that has to be made up to the world’s best and Ireland certainly were playing to their level from the off. A second try came on eight minutes as James Ryan struck from a tap penalty, Sexton again converting to make it 14-0 to the visitors.
It was 14 minutes before Wales were up and running, with Dan Biggar kicking a penalty only to see Sexton reply in kind four minutes later. Gatland’s men finally found some fluency after that with a good spell of pressure, keeping the ball alive inside the Irish half.
Biggar pushed the button too hard, however, as tried to find his full-back on the Irish 22, his pass to Liam Williams on the left wing intercepted by Lowe, who left his chasers for dust as he sprinted upfield to put Ireland into a commanding lead on 20 minutes. Sexton’s conversion from wide out made it 24-3 at the end of the first quarter and the captain added another penalty six minutes later.
It was not as one-sided as the score suggested and Ireland needed to produce some excellent defensive work to thwart Welsh hopes of making inroads to their lead. Ringrose stopped Biggar in his tracks as Wales threatened the Irish tryline, with Lowe’s jackal earning a turnover penalty and there were more heroics when Porter held up flanker Jac Morgan to deny the home side an opening try next to the posts.
It was Ringrose to the rescue once more as Wales attacked again, first to the ball as a red wave chased a kick over the Irish line and his punt into the Principality Stadium stands bringing to an end a thoroughly professional first half for Farrell’s men, 27-3 to the good.
The Welsh reaction after half-time was instant, notwithstanding a big hit on Biggar by Ringrose but the momentum was with the men in red and when Ireland conceded successive penalties, the reinvigorated home crowd sensed a comeback on the cards.
Liam Williams duly delivered his side’s first try on 45 minutes, and also won his side penalty after Porter dropped onto the try scorer and sparked a brief melee under the posts. Biggar’s conversion was followed by the penalty restart but though Wales fluffed their lines from the resulting lineout they continued to dominate proceedings as noise levels returned to their pre-game heights.
This was the atmosphere Farrell had had performance coach Gary Keegan preparing his players for as Wales poured forward once more. Yet Iain Henderson had not read the memo. The lock was on the field for only seconds as a replacement for Tadhg Beirne when he flew into Liam Williams after the full-back had kicked clear, leaving Welshman on the ground clutching his shoulder. Henderson was lucky to concede only a penalty but it put his side on the backfoot once more.
Ireland were scrambling and it needed some calm heads and Welsh inaccuracy to dig the visitors out of the hole they were digging for themselves. A Josh Adams offload into Peter O’Mahony’s hands helped as did a vital a tackle inside the 22 from Josh van der Flier and Ireland finally were able to relieve the pressure they had been under for most of the third quarter.
Farrell introduced fresh legs on the hour, replacing O’Mahony with Jack Conan, inside centre Stuart McCloskey with Bundee Aki and Furlong’s stand-in Finlay Bealham with the less experienced Tom O’Toole, winning his fifth cap. Aki immediately made his impact felt with a breakdown turnover but the penalty was quickly reversed with the replacement centre adjudged to have tackled George North without the ball.
Once again, Wales’s resulted lineout was not executed well and their hopes were further dashed when Liam Williams was yellow carded on 65 minutes for high contact on Sexton with an upright tackle.
Sexton, in his first game back following a facial injury on January 1, was withdrawn shortly after as Ireland’s management of the endgame was handed to a fresh half-back partnership of Craig Casey and Ross Byrne. Their timing was immaculate, coming into the game as the men in green finally got back on the front foot after 30 minutes of Welsh dominance. Ireland probed down the right wing with Mack Hansen causing problems before play was switched inside and van der Flier delivered the fourth and bonus-point try for his side, Ireland’s first points in 45 minutes, with Byrne adding the extras.
It may have been overdue but Ireland had achieved their goals, and Farrell can be satisfied with the way his team once again overcame all that was thrown at them.
France in Dublin next Saturday will be another litmus test of Ireland’s credentials but for now the celebrations will be well deserved.
L Williams; J Adams, G North, J Hawkins, R Dyer (A Cuthbert, 68); D Biggar (O Williams, 67), T Williams (R Webb, 63); G Thomas (R Carre, 54), K Owens – captain (S Baldwin, 60), T Francis (D Lewis, h-t); A Beard, A W Jones (D Jenkins, 60); J Morgan, J Tipuric (T Reffell, 54), T Faletau.
L Williams 65-75
H Keenan; M Hansen, G Ringrose, S McCloskey (B Aki, 60), J Lowe; J Sexton – captain (R Byrne, 68), C Murray (C Casey, 64); A Porter (D Kilcoyne, 73), D Sheehan (R Herring, 73), F Bealham (T O’Toole, 60); T Beirne (I Henderson, 54), J Ryan; P O’Mahony (J Conan, 60), J van der Flier, C Doris.
Karl Dickson (England)