Wales out-muscle Ireland for semi-final berth
October 8, 2011
Wales' Shane Williams crosses for a try against the Irish in Wellington
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Wales booked their place in the Rugby World Cup semi-finals with a 22-10 victory over Ireland in a thrilling clash at Wellington Regional Stadium on Saturday.
Tries from winger Shane Williams, scrum-half Mike Phillips and centre Jonathan Davies powered Wales into the final four for the first time since the inaugural World Cup in 1987. Two conversions from fly-half Rhys Priestland and a long-range penalty from fullback Leigh Halfpenny gave Wales breathing space in a pulsating encounter, but it was a superb defensive display that swung the game in their favour and denied Ireland a first-ever semi-final appearance.
Ireland dominated territory and possession for much of the game but got little change out of the miserly Welsh, with a second-half try from Keith Earls and an earlier penalty from No.10 Ronan O'Gara not enough to keep their World Cup hopes alive. Wales' reward is a date with either England or France next weekend, with their opponents set to be decided later today.
A big hit from centre Brian O'Driscoll set the tone for a bruising opening but it was Wales who stole the ball and with it an early advantage where it matters most. A high kick from fly-half Priestland put Ireland under pressure before centres Jonathan Davies and the Jamie Roberts powered into the 22. Flanker Sam Warburton and No.8 Toby Faletau added some weight to proceedings and the ball was worked wide to Halfpenny, who drew Earls before feeding Williams for a try in the corner with only two minutes on the clock.
Priestland added the extras but Ireland re-grouped and rallied, with O'Driscoll and openside Sean O'Brien earning some hard yards. Blindside Stephen Ferris took the ball on further and drew a penalty from Wales wing George North, which was kicked to the corner, but the gamble refused to pay off with Ireland's repeated attempts to hammer an opening proving fruitless in the face of rock-solid Welsh defence.
Roberts and North had more success with ball in hand before the door was also slammed in their face. Fullback Rob Kearney sparked the next Ireland raid, which resulted in another penalty that O'Gara wasted little time in sending to the corner for the lineout once again. Wales' impressive defence held firm, Williams denying O'Brien with a last ditch tackle before further pressure drew an error from an Irish side desperate to make their dominance pay.
A loose kick caught in the wind handed Ireland the next opportunity with O'Driscoll and Kearney pouncing to drive deep into the Welsh 22, but they struggled to recycle the ball and had to settle for an O'Gara penalty from straight in front. But five minutes later Ireland lock Donncha O'Callaghan was caught in possession and Halfpenny stepped up to try his luck from half way and he saw his penalty sail between the posts to cement Wales' lead.
Back came Ireland, who peppered the Welsh defence with phase after phase but got next to no reward for their endeavour with their Celtic cousins able to absorb the pressure. A lineout midway inside the Welsh half gave Ireland one final chance to reduce the arrears before the break but the attack was just the latest to be snuffed out.
There was little change to the pattern of the game at the start of the second-half, with Ireland soon on the front foot and in the shadow of the posts. The Welsh defence looked to have blunted yet another move before the ball was worked wide to Earls who weathered a tackle from Phillips on his way to the corner. The Television Match Official was required to confirm the score but the delay did little to distract O'Gara, who made no mistake with the conversion to level the scores. Wales' response was predictable with quick ball and direct running taking them downfield where it was their turn to be denied by an Irish defence galvanised by their recent score.
It looked like it would need something special to break the deadlock and that is what Wales produced. Camped inside the Irish 22, Phillips spotted a gap down the short side and a burst of acceleration took him through the tackle of centre Gordon D'Arcy. An acrobatic dive for the corner proved enough to ride the challenge of winger Tommy Bowe. Priestland failed with the conversion attempt from the touchline but Wales had wrestled back control of the game.
Scrum pressure drew a penalty against Irish loose-head Cian Healy on the hour, but Priestland could only hit the upright with his latest effort. However, some indecision from Earls soon provided another attacking platform and his error would prove costly. Priestland shifted the ball to Davies, who coasted through a tired Irish defence for his side's third try - Earls and Healy guilty of switching off.
Priestland slotted the extras and Ireland went in search of a much-needed score with replacement No.10 Jonathan Sexton proving elusive inside the Wales 22. Scrum-half Eoin Reddan added a bit more zip before O'Brien took the ball on further but O'Driscoll could only knock on as he looked scoop the ball up and cross the Welsh line.
The game looked to be slipping away from Ireland when No.8 Jamie Heaslip was penalised for going off his feet at a ruck 35metres from his own line but Priestland offered a lifeline of sorts by striking the post yet again. Ireland capitalised by taking the game back into the Welsh 22 but a lack of ideas would ensure there was no dramatic turnaround.
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