Wales 23 Ireland 16: Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions have been ended and their hopes of retaining the Six Nations title severely dented by a seven-point defeat to Wales at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The visitors will have few complaints after a performance scarred by far too many individual mistakes, something highlighted by the unusually sloppy display put in by out-half Jonathan Sexton - on what was captain Paul O’Connell’s one hundredth cap.
It was the first defeat in eleven games for Joe Schmidt’s side.
Ireland produced a woeful first fifteen minutes of rugby and it ultimately cost them. Mistakes rippled through a side whose performances in the wins against Italy, France and England had been largely blemish free and it allowed Wales take the early initiative.
Four times Ireland conceded penalties in kickable positions in that period and Leigh Halfpenny punished every one of them to give Warren Gatland’s side a 12-0 lead, two points greater than the advantage they claimed and then squandered against England.
That lesson was learned.
Ireland gradually began to find their feet, after stolen lineouts and some unfamiliar errors from Sexton, and it is likely the visitors were aided by the long delay required after Halfpenny’s fourth effort to attend to the injured Samson Lee.
A missed penalty from Sexton soon after didn’t bode well, but the out-half landed a second attempt within minutes after a high tackle by Scott Baldwin on Tommy Bowe and better news followed 28 minutes in when Wales captain Sam Warburton was sin binned.
Referee Wayne Barnes had only just warned both sides after repeated infractions that a card was imminent and it was the subsequent man of the match who crossed the wrong line at the wrong time with a transgression that gave Sexton his second three points.
A drop goal from Dan Biggar made it 15-6 to the hosts, before Sexton’s third penalty ensured the gap would only be six at half-time - a more than acceptable difference for an Irish side that showed signs of better form after their initial struggles.
Ireland continued to take the game to Wales after the break and never more so than approximately fifty minutes in when they pounded the Welsh line dozens of times over a five-minute period but failed to score.
Questions may be asked as to why a penalty or drop goal option was not considered at various points, but the magnificence of the Welsh defence was the story at that point and the relieving penalty they won was greeted with a guttural stadium roar.
The momentum had shifted, so too territory, and when Ireland coughed up another lineout - this time in their own 22 - it laid a platform for Wales to claim the game’s first try through Scott Williams who spotted a gap in the line between Jamie Heaslip and Bowe.
Halfpenny, incredulously, missed the conversion and Ireland came with inches of replying with a five-pointer of their own as they camped again on the Welsh line after 66 minutes before a penalty try and conversion from Sexton left them just 20-16 adrift.
Still anyone's game, then.
Leigh Halfpenny stretched the lead back to seven with a penalty after Cian Healy was penalised for not releasing and, though Wales played the last few minutes a man down after Jonathan Davies’ sin binning, that was the last change to the scoreboard.
Wales: L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, J Roberts, L Williams; D Biggar, R Webb; G Jenkins, S Baldwin, S Lee; L Charteris, A Wyn Jones; D Lydiate, S Warburton, T Faletau. Replacements: A Jarvis for Lee (14); R Evans for Jenkins (HT); R Hibbard for Baldwin (58); S Williams for Roberts (60); M Phillips for Webb (69); J Ball for Wyn Jones (72).
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O’Connell; P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip. Replacements: C Healy for McGrath (57); M Moore for Ross, S Cronin for Best, I Henderson for Toner and E Reddan for Murray (all 64); J Murphy for Heaslip (72); I Madigan for Sexton (75).
Referee: W Barnes (RFU).
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