Wales got the 2021 Guinness Six Nations off to a winning start in scrappy fashion on Sunday as 14-man Ireland were just about beaten at the Principality Stadium.
Wayne Pivac had opted for Wales’ most experienced starting XV ever, with Ken Owens recalled up front, Dan Lydiate back after over two years out of the international arena at blindside, Dan Biggar preferred to Callum Sheedy and Jarrod Evans at fly-half, and George North getting the nod at outside centre.
Despite the age in their legs it was the home side who came out fastest though, as Alun Wyn Jones pounced on a loose ball, Justin Tipuric released Louis Rees-Zammit down the right and Peter O’Mahony was pinged for going off his feet allowing Leigh Halfpenny to put the first three points on the board.
O’Mahony was then back in the action a few minutes later as the game turned on his red card. Ireland looked to push forward on a turnover ball but as Tomas Francis went to roll away from the tackle area he was caught in the face by a shoulder flying into the breakdown from the Munster man and referee Wayne Barnes rightly sent him from the field.
Initially with the man advantage Wales were able to put the Irish to the sword a bit, moving the ball well and heading down field until a high tackle allowed Halfpenny to add another three points to the scoreboard.
From that point until the half-time whistle the game was all Ireland’s though as Welsh ill-discipline saw six penalties conceded in a row and allowed the away side the opportunity to enjoy the majority of possession and territory, with Johnny Sexton drawing the scores level off the tee.
Then on the stroke of the break the major breakthrough for the men in green as Robbie Henshaw cut back across the field and broke the tackles of Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau. Josh van der Flier was on his shoulder and although he was brought down short, Tadhg Beirne was on hand to crash over. Sexton converted for a 6-13 half-time lead.
Fortunately the interval came at a good time for Wales though as they re-grouped and came out firing in the third quarter, moving the ball faster, holding on to possession longer and forcing Ireland into conceding penalties that moved Wayne Pivac’s men down field.
Although possession was a little scrappy, Josh Navidi was on hand at one breakdown to scoop the ball up, produce a stunning out the back door offload for George North to show-and-go past Iain Henderson and score his 44th Wales try. Leigh Halfpenny couldn’t convert but Wales were right back in the game.
When Tadhg Beirne was adjudged, perhaps harshly, to have infringed at the breakdown a few minutes later Halfpenny was able to add more to the scoreboard though as Wales took an imperious looking 21-13 lead with 15 to go.
Unfortunately the home side decided to desperately attempt to let Ireland back into the game, culminating in a moment in the final seconds of normal time that saw Gareth Davies kick ball away on first phase possession on the scrum and allow the visitors to launch an attack.
A sharp break from Garry Ringrose was brilliantly halted by the covering Justin Tipuric, but a penalty gave Billy Burns the opportunity to kick right into the corner. Luckily for Davies and Wales he overcooked the touch finder in dramatic fashion and the game ended with a win for Wayne Pivac’s men.
In the end it was a first victory over a side that wasn’t Italy and Georgia under the New Zealander, with a win hopefully doing a world of good for the confidence inside the camp after a tough run from the last Six Nations and into the Autumn.
However, a big improvement will be required at the lineout, in attack and in terms of general game management before a trip to a Scottish side bouncing off the back of a famous Calcutta Cup win at Twickenham last weekend.