Murray Kinsella reports from the Principality Stadium
MADNESS WAS PROMISED in Cardiff under the Friday night lights, and Wales and Ireland conspired to deliver a frenetic, chaotic and brutal affair that has almost certainly ended Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations hopes with one round left to play.
George North was a key man for the Welsh. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Ireland had their chances, many of them. But consistent profligacy in the Welsh 22, particularly from close-range set-pieces was incredibly costly, as Schmidt’s side failed to score even a single try.
With England favourites to beat Scotland tomorrow, they may well be coming to Dublin next weekend as the 2017 Six Nations champions.
A victory for the Scots in Twickenham can keep the Irish title dream alive by a thread, but it is now out of Schmidt and his players’ hands. Even if the Scots were to win against England, Ireland would need to beat Eddie Jones’ men in Dublin and hope for Italy to claim victory at Murrayfield on the final weekend.
A late Welsh score for replacement centre Jamie Roberts rubbed salt in Irish wounds that will fester for some time. Earlier, 10 minutes for Johnny Sexton in the sin bin had seen Ireland give up 10 points to leave themselves chasing the game.
The out-half had also departed for a Head Injury Assessment in the opening half, Ireland conceding the first try of the game immediately after his exit, the linebreak coming right down the Irish out-half channel in defence.
Ireland’s error count was far too high on such a make-or-break occasion, with handling mistakes repeatedly stymying attacking progress. Their defensive effort was, at times, sensational as they made 154 tackles, but Wales had a cutting edge, and also defended superbly.
Having come under intense pressure this week, following the recent defeats to England and Scotland, Rob Howley’s men delivered an angry response, with double try-scorer George North a constant torment to the Irish defence.
Man of the match Rhys Webb was in stunning form throughout, playing a central role in both of North’s tries and outperforming Conor Murray, who Ireland lost to an arm injury early in the second half.
In truth, Murray probably should have departed earlier with that injury – caused by the barrelling North – but Schmidt opted to leave him on the pitch with one working arm.
An aggressive start from Ireland led to Sexton opening the scoring with a penalty from 40 metres out, to the left of the posts, and the visitors’ linespeed was a notable feature, with the out-half picking off a Webb pass as the Welsh looked for a response.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Sean O’Brien levelled Dan Biggar on the next Wales attack, while Robbie Henshaw twice produced momentous hits, and despite progress upfield into Ireland’s 22, Jonathan Davies knocked-on to end the pressure.
A Biggar spill in an aerial contest – another early area of strength for Ireland – saw CJ Stander pick up loose possession and fend Scott Williams before thundering over Leigh Halfpenny, forcing the Welsh to concede a penalty Ireland put into the left corner.
But a recent trend of missing five-metre opportunities continued as Alun Wyn Jones stole Rory Best’s throw from Jamie Heaslip in the air, a huge moment for the Welsh.
Sexton kicked one of his bombs dead soon after, and then suffered a blow to the head as he defended from the resulting scrum – meaning a HIA and the entry of Paddy Jackson into the game.
Wales went straight into the Ulsterman’s channel with the very next lineout attack, Jackson rushing up ahead of O’Brien on his inside and Henshaw on his outside, opening space for Scott Williams to burst through just inside the Irish half and offload to Webb.
The scrum-half threw a beautiful long pass to Halfpenny, who gave North time on the ball wide on the right. The imposing wing, chastened by the criticism of his own coaching staff, showed his muscular quality to step back inside Keith Earls and carry Simon Zebo over the tryline with him.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
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Halfpenny’s conversion attempt was off target, before Ireland had another period of pressure in the Wales 22 that possibly should have resulted in a try.
The Welsh collapsed a promising Irish maul, then Justin Tipuric failed to release after his tackle on Stander, but referee Wayne Barnes felt a penalty was enough punishment. Jackson slotted the shot at goal for a 6-5 Ireland lead, with Sexton then returning.
Next up was the injury scare for scrum-half Murray that would ultimately result in his departure, as he twice stayed down with an arm issue after big collisions with North. The Munster man battled through the clear pain and played on.