Wales’ Six Nations hopes crashed and burned in Dublin on Saturday, as Ireland secured a bonus-point victory at the Aviva Stadium to stay on track for a Grand Slam.
In terms of modern day test matches it was an unusual one, in the sense that Ireland dominated the game statistically, but that was no reflected on the scoreboard as Wales were clinical with what little possession they did have.
Warren Gatland had made three changes from the side that ultimately started against England two weeks ago, as Leigh Halfpenny recovered from the infection that kept him out of the Twickenham clash to start in the back three alongside Liam Williams, while Dan Biggar was fit enough to reclaim the red 10 jersey.
Almost immediately there was tone setters from both sides, as Ireland cleared after receiving the kick-off, and Chris Farrell promptly flattened Leigh Halfpenny on the chase, before Dan Biggar kicked possession away from Wales.
Fortunately Keith Earls would knock the kick on, and the retreating Bundee Aki reactively picked up the loose ball from an offside position. Halfpenny gladly kicked the visitors ahead inside three minutes.
That would be as good as it got early on for Wales though, as they struggled to get to grips with both Ireland’s physicality, and referee Glen Jackson’s interpretation of the laws surrounding the breakdown.
Rob Evans, controversially wearing a thermal base layer under his jersey, would be the first to fall foul of that, but Johnny Sexton could not take advantage off the kicking tee. Unfortunately Scott Williams would throw a forward pass as Wales tried to counter-attack, and pressure was back on the visitors.
From the scrum Ireland tried, and failed, to batter around the fringes. However, with players sucked into the breakdown areas, Sexton was able to spot Jacob Stockdale on the left touchline, and when Halfpenny bit inside in the defensive line, a fired miss-pass from the fly-half found the young winger free to score in the corner.
Sexton, reportedly struggling with a back injury, would miss a second kick, swiftly followed by a third as Samson Lee was next up to fall foul of Mr Jackson. However, despite the eight points left on the tee, Ireland were still commanding the game.
It took 15 minutes after Halfpenny kicked Wales ahead for the visitors to return to Ireland’s 22, thanks to a superb Scott Williams clearance kick. Unfortunately the Irish were braver in their exit strategy, producing a clever first phase play for Sexton to make ground, before CJ Stander broke the line on his inside shoulder.
Finally, after 20 minutes, Wales were able to show what they were about with ball in hand, and they did so with aplomb. Hadleigh Parkes and Aaron Shingler put pressure on Ireland with some excellent carrying, creating quick ball.
Rob Evans stepped in at scrum-half, attempting to move the ball wide. They didn’t make it, as Bundee Aki cynically slapped the ball down, but scrum-half Gareth Davies was able to scoop up the loose ball and step past Chris Farrell to score under the posts.
All of a sudden the score showed Ireland 5-10 Wales with 22 minutes played. Against the run of play would be an understatement, but it sparked some life into Warren Gatland’s men, as they provided two opportunities for Halfpenny to extend the lead, and he took one of those gladly.
Ireland were not done in the first half though, and when Keith Earls ran free from midfield, they were returned to the Wales five metre line and not keen to leave without points. Dan Leavy and Chris Farrell both went close, but they had to make do with a first successful kick from Sexton.
Then, as the clock ticked into the red, a breakthrough. A lineout drive took the Irish into the 22, and some committed carries from the forwards set the Welsh back further. As the attack looked like it might not make it over the try line, Bundee Aki arrived on a perfect line and was able to reach for the all-important score.
Sexton duly converted, and just like that it was Ireland leading 15-13 at half-time.
Ireland came into the second half with all the momentum of having gone in ahead at the break, however it would be a moment of madness from Wales fly-half Dan Biggar that gave them possession to further their lead.
A high kick from the hosts was taken well by Biggar, but as he was hit on the way down he decided to appeal to the referee that he was taken in the air. With one hand off the ball it was duly dislodged from his grasp and turned over.
The hosts moved the ball quickly from the left-to-right, eventually freeing Earls via Rob Kearney, before Conor Murray took the Irish up to the five-metre line. The red wall re-assembled, but was eventually powerless to stop Dan Leavy driving over. All from a petulant piece of play from Biggar.
When Cian Healy drove over for the bonus point try with 25 minutes to go, it seemed like Ireland might run away with the game. However, the game can change on one moment, and with Sexton still missing goal kicks, Wales still had hope.
Dan Biggar made amends for his knock-on at the beginning of the half with a majestic up-and-under to give the visitors front foot ball in Ireland’s half.
Looking more like the Wales team that took apart Scotland in round one, the ball was spread to the left, with Scott Williams releasing Steff Evans, before he was brought down in the 22. The recycled ball then came back to the right wing where Josh Navidi combined with Aaron Shingler to send his fellow flanker over in the corner.
With the scoreboard now offering Ireland just a 27-20 lead, the game became an enthralling one as it to’d and fro’d. George North made good metres for Wales off the bench, while some clever game management put the home side into good areas of the pitch as the game ticked into the final 10 minutes.
Eventually that pressure from Ireland told as they won a scrum penalty in kick-able range and, with Sexton now off the field, scrum-half Murray took over kicking duties. In off the post, but it would do.
Wales managed to win the ball back from the kick-off and, with the last chance saloon quickly approaching, went all out for the win. Justin Tipuric and North combined down the right to make ground, before Navidi and Steff Evans teamed up on the left for a third try of the day.
Halfpenny kicked the conversion to give Wales real hope, and when Ireland infringed quickly after the kick-off, the visitors could attack from halfway.
Nine phases of attack went by, and with no ground made, Gareth Anscombe went for the jugular. Receiving possession from a screen pass he spotted a two-on-one overlap on the right and attempted the long miss-pass. Unfortunately Stockdale was alive to the danger and pounced to intercept and run under the posts.
Murray denied Wales the bonus point, but realistically they should have been nowhere near the result as Ireland enjoyed 69% possession, 75% territory and almost complete dominance up front.
Warren Gatland has now spoken about trying out some new players against Italy in round four, with the likes of Elliott Dee, Wyn Jones, Seb Davies, James Davies, Owen Watkin and George North ready to take their places in the starting XV.
However, he will no doubt be disappointed with the game plan that his team were sent out with at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, and how they failed to adapt when it was clearly going wrong. Lessons to be learned with a Rugby World Cup getting ever closer.