Yellow fever returns to haunt Wales
Graham Jenkins at Croke Park
March 13, 2010
Wales' Jonathan Thomas is shackled by the Irish defence at Croke Park © Getty Images
In the words of baseball legend and master of the malapropism Yogi Berra - "It's like deja-vu, all over again."
Wales were once again guilty of gift-wrapping a victory for a Six Nations rival with an ill-disciplined display at Croke Park. On this occasion Ireland were the grateful beneficiaries and as a result Declan Kidney's side closed in on the Triple Crown and ensured the battle for northern hemisphere supremacy will go down to the wire.
The yellow fever that tore at the heart of Wales' Championship campaign in their opening fixture against England last month reared its ugly ahead again in Dublin with the same demoralising effect.
For lock Alun-Wyn Jones read fullback Lee Byrne, whose blatant slowing of the ball in the first-half resulted in him being sent to the sin-bin for what proved to be a pivotal ten minute period. Ireland pounced on their numerical advantage to score two tries through Keith Earls and Tomas O'Leary and there was no way back for Wales against and Irish side that delivered another masterclass in defence.
There was more woe for Byrne in the second period when he was penalised for throwing the ball away and his moment of madness was clinically punished again - this time by Jonathan Sexton - whose boot delivered a hammer blow to a Welsh side that had shown glimpses of yet another second-half recovery. But unlike their dramatic reversal in fortunes against Scotland, there was to be no dream ending for the Welsh who failed to find the cutting edge that had cut England, Scotland and France apart.
Wales' woes were only part of the story and to focus so strongly on their shortcomings would be unfair on an Irish side that went about their business with ruthless efficiency. Ireland's performance may have lacked the bells and whistles of a real crowd-pleasing show but no one in the capacity crowd would dare complain. There was an impressive mix of brawn and beauty - muscle and magic.
They were second best for much of the first-half but crucially they were unmatched in one key area - execution. Just as they did against a determined but toothless England, Ireland soaked up the best their opponents could muster before delivering repeated body blows with the precision of an assassin to take a firm grip on the contest.
Ireland's defensive strength was again to the fore and was the reason for a seismic shift in momentum in the second-half. Wales had returned with renewed conviction and backed themselves at scrum-time deep inside the Irish 22. But the door was slammed shut with towering No.8 Jamie Heaslip securing the ball before the danger was cleared. Croke Park was on its feet in admiration and Wales had been stopped in their tracks - quite literally.
It was also a case of men again boys at lineout time with Ireland bossing proceedings from the outset. Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and Heaslip all took it in turns to torment the Welsh who had a torrid afternoon at the set-piece.
Captain Brian O'Driscoll was his usual industrious self on the occasion of his 100th Ireland cap, not that you would have known he was celebrating such a feat. There was no flicker of emotion from the talismanic centre and he went about his business with the same fervour as usual. He exchanged a couple of bone-crunching tackle with his fellow Lion Jamie Roberts but his was not the most impressive display - that came from scrum-half O'Leary.
The lively No.9 was the driving force for much of his side's attacking endeavour, delivering quick ball and directing proceedings as his fly-half Sexton suffered a forgettable day with the boot. O'Leary appears back to his best after an injury-plagued 2009 and capped a superb performance with his second Test try that his performance deserved.
O'Leary should perhaps share the plaudits with Earls who appeared to come of age with an assured display. The 22-year-old grabbed two tries in only his eighth Test appearance and took the enforced positional change from wing to inside-centre following the injury to Gordon D'Arcy in his stride. He oozed confidence and was a constant threat having been something of a bit-part player for his relatively short international career.
For all their huffing and puffing Wales never really looked like breaching the Irish line and the last act of the game - a wild pass from James Hook that sailed straight into touch - summed up a very poor performance. But it is that failure to cross the whitewash that will no doubt cause the most concern.
Up until now Wales have carved their rivals open with ease but now coach Warren Gatland must revive his flagging backline and solve his side's disciplinary problems - all this in addition to the task of plugging his leaky defence - surely too much to fix in the space of seven days? Wales now find themselves in the dreaded wooden spoon mix with fellow strugglers Italy the visitors to the Millennium Stadium on the final weekend - a season that promised much is falling apart.
Ireland can look forward to another full house at Croke Park next weekend with a Triple Crown there for the taking against Scotland in what will be their last Test in their temporary home before moving to the new Aviva Stadium. But like today, there will be no room for emotion come kick off - this side have a growing reputation for getting the job done. And that's the kind of monotonous fare you can live with.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.