Wales’ Six Nations hopes come unstuck at the Aviva Stadium
This was an afternoon when the travelling army of Welsh wished the luck of the Irish would be simply shamrocked away. Playing at home seems talisman enough for the Irish who have racked up 16 out of 17 Test match wins in Dublin. But statistics don’t determine games.
There had been only one change to the Welsh team that had trounced the Italians by five tries last weekend and that was the inclusion of Nick Tompkins after his sizzling sidestepping masterclass against the Azzurris. We should thank the Lord for the Saracen’s eligibility via a granny in Wrexham and for the England selectors being slow off the mark to sign him up. George North, meanwhile, moved to his more usual position on the wing, linking up with the indefatigable Hadleigh Parkes as Dan Biggar faced up to the hyper-experienced Johnny Sexton, now captain of the team in green, as well as the man who racked up all of the Irish points in their nervy, not-so-distinguished win over Scotland last weekend. Biggar versus Sexton would be a needle match in itself, not least because Biggar seems to be really enjoying his game at the moment, in simply top form, even athletically passing the ball through the legs as he did last week.
With an afternoon of February sun over the Aviva stadium, just before incoming Storm Ciara, the scene was set for ninety minutes of bright, hopefully brilliant rugby. The Irish, with their strong pack would be no pushover as they had proved in the pre World Cup warm-ups, beating the Welsh both home and away. The pundits on both sides of St George’s channel anticipated another close game between Wales, last year’s Grand Slammers and the home nation, with most backing Wales to edge it with Welsh coach Wayne Pivac keenly anticipating running rugby. Sadly it was not to be.
An early green scrum on the Welsh line got the crowd roaring but the red pack shoved themselves a penalty which failed to cross the touch line, thus keeping Wales under the cosh. Tipuric seemed to have cloned himself as he tidied up, popping up seemingly in two places at once, helping the Welsh defence stand as solid as the Fastnet rock. But at the 15 minute mark possession was mainly Ireland’s a penalty toward the corner setting up a driving maul repulsed by a whisker by Wales. Jordan Larmour, the mercurial back then sliced though the defence, avoiding both Tompkins and Tomos Williams to claim Ireland’s first 5 points. The strengthening wind seemingly denied Sexton the conversion. Wales at this stage had had few attacking phases while the Irish penchant for one pick and drive after the other was very much on display. Josh Adams meanwhile limped off to be replace by the Scarlets’ fiery Johnny McNicholl. Then a moment of necessary magic: captain Alun Wyn Jones passing to set up the ever-sprightly Tomos Williams racing succesfully for the line, with Biggar making it seven points and settling a slim lead. However the Irish response unit was ready with Leinster’s tight head prop Tadhg Furlong tanking over the line for the replying try with Sexton sure-footed as he converted.
The Welsh players then started to link up at pace, Biggar controlling the flow of play, Ireland replying with a gigantic punt gun of a kick downfield, underlining the general trend of the possession. As half-time sounded Wales sighed a collective sigh of relief. With ball in hand they had displayed definite flair and a solid scrum had held firm but mistakes, as ever, had proved costly.
The opening minutes of the second half were a comedy of errors for Wales, not the desired start. The Irish, responding to the wind, increasingly opted for running ball in hand, then stealing a Welsh put in and setting up a Welsh put in within a kiss of the corner flag, driven over by Irish forward power for Josh van der Flier’s try. At 19-7 the game might be slipping away but a Henderson high tackle gifted Wales an opportunity with McNicholl sparking alive and Faletau showing his ball-carrying class after two years away because of injury. Hadleigh Parkes seized the moment from scrappy play and seemed to plant the ball over the try line with a fingertip but it was lost forward, perhaps a determining moment in the game.
The Welsh then pressurised the green try line, but a collapsing Welsh scrum gave the Irish certain relief and, with the scoreline at 19-7, a sense they could close the game down in the closing quarter.
Under pressure in their own 22 a Gareth Davies pass to North was fumbled and this one of the few occasions in the game when the big Anglesey man managed to get his hands on the ball. A fourth try and unexpected bonus point followed when Andrew Conway avoided McNicholl to score in the corner. C. J. Stander, meanwhile, deservedly won the man of the match for sterling work, consistently crunching his way upfield and proving a human bulwark over the ball. The Dublin crowd was now resurgent with song even as Tipuric scored a consolation try in in the 80th minute, Halfpenny converting. Too late, of course.
So, a comfortable win for Ireland who could now plan how to marshall an effective Grand Slam campain and gain a Triple Crown while Wales, especially some of the newer players, could absorb some necessary lessons in anticipation of meeting France in a fortnight. Wales had been in the game, most certainly, but just not enough.