Ireland 37 - Wales 27: Warren Gatland can always be relied on to offer a pithy comment or a smartly-aimed barb and they were much in evidence as the Wales coach reflected on a first Six Nations defeat to Ireland since 2014.
Yet as the Welsh sank to their second defeat of this 2018 championship and Gatland admitted his side’s race was already run with two rounds still to play, the New Zealander did concede that while he was no fan of their playing style, Ireland aren’t half a handful to get the better of.
During his post-match press conference, he digested a helter-skelter, eight-try match dominated by an Ireland side unable to convert that into a secure victory until the last play of the game past 80 minutes.
Ireland outscored the visitors by five tries to three, Ireland powering over the line from short range four times, through Jacob Stockdale, Bundee Aki, Dan Leavy and Cian Healy before Stockdale delivered the killer blow with an intercept score at the death. Yet Gatland had seen his side cut the home team open in more scintillating fashion, through scrum-half Gareth Davies, Aaron Shingler and Steff Evans to keep this contest bubbling at a vigourous simmer throughout. However, an otherwise high-standard Johnny Sexton performance was blighted by the out-half’s poor goal-kicking, landing one penalty and two conversions but missing two of each before a bang on the backside and “dead glute” according to head coach Joe Schmidt, forced him off with four minutes to go, just after Conor Murray had kicked a much-needed penalty to put his side 30-20 up.
Evans’ converted try made it 30-27 just a minute later before Gareth Anscombe’s mis-pass threatened a three-on-one overlap out wide with the clock past 80 but was picked off by Stockdale, Joey Carbery’s conversion with the last kick making it a 10-point game.
Schmidt had got the better of his fellow Kiwi, and though Gatland had sarcastically praised his opposite number in front of the cameras, prompting chuckles as he said Ireland had “moved the ball brilliantly well” and were “so exciting in the way they played today”, Gatland later offered less fulsome, more meaningful analysis.
“Yeah, they’re hard to break down, that’s the thing about the Irish team. They are not flashy or anything like that but they’re very clinical, they’re accurate, they keep the ball for lots and lots of phases and when they’re in your 22 they normally come away with points,” the Welsh boss said.
“The disappointing thing from our point of view is the things we worked on and spoke about during the week have come back to haunt us - our discipline, being prepared to go through lots and lots of phases against an Irish team without giving anything away. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that and when they got close to our goal-line they were very good.”
Wales did exploit defensive weaknesses out wide that Italy had been successful doing a fortnight earlier in scoring three tries and 19 points late on to the quiet fury of Andy Farrell and there will be more honesty from Ireland’s defence coach in advance of Scotland’s visit to Dublin on March 10.
There is, though, plenty to admire about this performance that, combined with England’s sloppy loss to the Scots in Edinburgh leaves the Irish on top of the table, five points clear of the defending champions and six clear of Scotland. More importantly, Ireland remains the only team left in the championship capable of the Grand Slam with that St Patrick’s Day appointment at Twickenham on the final day now looming large.
Ireland’s injury-enforced reliance on rookies Andrew Porter at tighthead prop, lock James Ryan and man of the match Chris Farrell at outside centre brought huge dividends as a strong Wales side were forced to concede penalties at the breakdown and scrum and pressured into handling errors in contact and around the breakdown.
The injury report on Keith Earls (cramp), Murray (ankle) and Sexton (glute) point to recoveries within days rather than weeks while the imminent returns of Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong as well as Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose are further reasons for optimism.
And the Slam is now in much sharper focus. Three down, two to go, although Ireland captain Rory Best, understandably, would rather talk about anything else.
“To come out of that game with maximum points, and Wales were coming here having lost one, won one, so they knew their championship was in the balance.
“When you get a team that’s desperate to win sometimes it can be very very difficult to break them. It proved that at times but to get maximum points out of that is something we’re very happy with.
“We don’t look beyond the next game, it’s boring and a bit clichéd but that is what is really good about this group. Obviously, you have long-term goals and everyone knows where we want to go but it is all about the next game and how we can recover and prepare for it.”
R Kearney; K Earls (F McFadden, 62), C Farrell, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery, 76), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath, 62), R Best, capt (S Cronin, 70), A Porter (John Ryan, 66); James Ryan, D Toner (Q Roux, 74); P O’Mahony (J Conan, 66), D Leavy, CJ Stander.
Replacement not used:
L Halfpenny; L Williams (G North, 64), S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans; D Biggar (G Anscombe, 64), G Davies; R Evans (W Jones, 56), K Owens (E Dee, 56), S Lee (T Francis, 56); C Hill (B Davies, 64), A W Jones, capt; A Shingler, J Navidi, R Moriarty (J Tipuric, 64).
Replacement not used:
Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
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