Clinical Ireland carve Wales apart
March 13, 2010
Keith Earls crashed over for Ireland's first and third tries
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Ireland remain on course for a fifth Triple Crown since 2004 after clinically dispatching a dismal Wales 27-12 at Croke Park.
Having shown their finishing prowess with a razor-sharp attacking display against England two weeks ago Ireland ruthlessly exploited Wales' latest bout of yellow fever, scoring a brace of first-half tries while Lee Byrne kicked his heels in the sin-bin. Keith Earls and Tomas O'Leary breached the Welsh defence and were the tormentors in chief, Earls finishing with a brace thanks to his winning try in the second-half.
Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll won his 100th cap in green but it was the British & Irish Lions skipper, Paul O'Connell, who celebrated his best performance for a number of Tests by dismantling a pitiful Welsh lineout marshalled by his one-time Lions team-mate Matthew Rees.
Shorn of skipper Ryan Jones due to a calf injury, Gareth Delve stepped in at No.8 for the visitors and openside Martyn Williams took the leadership reins on the occasion of his record-breaking 95th cap, the most ever for a Welsh forward. Stephen Jones kicked all of Wales' points while Irish pivot Jonathan Sexton chipped in with 12 despite an error-riddled display.
Rees' first lineout predictably went astray to the delight of the home crowd, wasting a clever chip and strong tackle by Jones. Ireland countered from deep through David Wallace, the openside darting past three featherweight Welsh tackles and winning a penalty. Sexton pulled his effort wide of the mark from just inside the opposition half.
Ireland attacked immediately from the restart and again punched holes in the Wales defence at will, O'Driscoll knocking on when put into a half-gap by a surge from Tommy Bowe. Wales' scrum functioned well to allow Byrne to pin a kick deep into Irish territory but they piled further pressure on themselves with some loose play on the half-way line, Shane Williams rescued by a penalty having put Leigh Halfpenny under pressure with a looping pass.
Jones opened the scores with a penalty as Ireland failed to roll away following a powerful burst from Bradley Davies but Wales' inefficiency at the lineout conceded good field position when Geordan Murphy put the ball out on the full after the restart.
Jones missed his second shot at goal and Sexton levelled the scores when awarded a simple shot at the posts due to a ruck infringement by Jonathan Thomas. Considering Wales' staggering lack of cohesion at the lineout Ireland were content to use the touchline as their friend and it was from another lost Rees lineout that they notched their second penalty. Bowe carved a path into open space off a deft inside ball from Sexton and when the wing was chopped down by Byrne the referee swiftly signalled for a shot at the posts.
Wales produced their most effective attack from the restart but rather than supply points, it garnered only a spell in the bin for Byrne. The fullback had latched on to a pass from James Hook and broken clear only to be scragged and turned over, killing the Irish defensive ball and earning the ire of referee Craig Joubert.
Ireland reacted immediately, Sexton collecting a kick inside the Welsh 22 following an unkind bounce. Williams conceded the penalty for not releasing and off a quick tap Ireland expertly worked space with solid handling, Earls cutting an excellent angle to score just to the right of the posts off an O'Driscoll pass.
To compound Wales' disciplinary lapse, O'Leary pounced for a second score soon after. Wales scrum-half Richie Rees went missing at a defensive lineout, allowing his opposite number all the time in the world to collect an offload from O'Connell and break through a yawning chasm between the back-row and fly-half. O'Leary expertly stood up Halfpenny and crashed over, but Sexton again missed his conversion.
With Byrne restored, Wales came within inches of scoring a try of their own, Jamie Roberts barrelling through a gap generated by patient phase play deep in Irish territory only to be stopped illegally. Jones slotted the kick but Wales again had their hearts in their mouths as Earls and Sexton combined to tear a hole in their defence only for the ball to beat the chasing duo into touch and bring the half-time whistle.
The second-half began with an extended bout of kicking, Wales clearly petrified of subjecting their lineout to further examination, but the large travelling contingent in the crowd was brought to life as Roberts smashed through an O'Driscoll tackle to set up a prolonged period of pressure in the Irish 22. Wales' backline was alternately bunched together or hopelessly spread out but their ball retention was good and their patience drew a brace of attacking scrums.
The Irish eight went backwards at a rate of knots but Wales' composure deserted them at a vital moment, the ball skittling out of the side for Ireland to clear with the full backing of the Croke Park faithful. Moments later, Byrne conceded his second foolish penalty by throwing the ball away after a hack ahead by Earls, with Sexton slotting the points.
Jones snaffled three points back with his third penalty but Wales were unable to convert any further chances against a well-drilled Irish line despite complete dominance of possession and territory. In stark contrast, Ireland maintained their admirable ability to strike when the opportunity arrived.
Earls' second try was a delight for fans of economy of effort. With their first meaningful territory of the second-half O'Leary ripped through the Welsh defence from yet more clean lineout ball, arching through the midfield cordon and finding his Munster team-mate on another devastating angle to the line.
Wales plodded and probed but were stopped dead by the Irish defence, who were frequently offside but escaped heavy sanction, and it fell to Sexton to round off the scoring with a well-struck drop-goal.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.