Wales' victory destined for infamy
Huw Baines at the Millennium Stadium
March 12, 2011
Mike Phillips celebrates victory, thanks in no small part to his controversial try © Getty Images
There's a time and place for everything. Those frequenting the Millennium Stadium in early March traditionally favour a diet of champagne rugby, but on Saturday they gleefully devoured a meat and potatoes display from Wales, who are at long last developing a winning habit.
That a third win in four outings came against Ireland was an added bonus. Their Celtic brethren have been a thorn in their side for two years, winning a fabled Grand Slam in Cardiff in 2009 before cruising to victory at Croke Park last season - a loss marked down as the nadir of Warren Gatland's now record-breaking stint as head coach.
The boot of James Hook and a moment of insouciance from touch judge Peter Allan took this game from Ireland, with the result always destined to be decided by small margins. The Welsh fly-half was calculating and pragmatic, kicking often and largely accurately. He may have ridden roughshod over his image as the saviour of flowing rugby in Wales but he added a couple of inches to his stature as a multi-purpose stand-off. It rained, and he dealt with it.
Allan, and referee Jonathan Kaplan, are going to have to bed down for a long journey before their error prior to Mike Phillips' try is forgotten. The scrum-half and Wales skipper Matthew Rees impishly conspired to craft a score from a quick lineout but, thanks to a handily-positioned ball boy, the ball thrown into play was not the one dispatched out on the full seconds earlier by Ireland's replacement fly-half Jonathan Sexton. At elite level, mistakes are expected to be at a minimum and the officials let themselves down immeasurably with such lack of attention.
Sexton's errant punt was one of a number of careless moments from the Leinster out-half, whose introduction on 49 minutes was puzzling. With Ireland ahead 13-9 and the rain steadily falling through the open roof of the stadium, the previously steady Ronan O'Gara appeared the perfect man to see Ireland over the line in a game of feet and inches.
The opening moments of the match threw together some of the major characters in Irish rugby's near unblemished history at the Millennium Stadium, with O'Gara at the fore and able support coming from try-scorer Brian O'Driscoll and scrum-half Peter Stringer, who was introduced after only 40 seconds following an injury to Eoin Reddan. Such was the mood, the Welsh choir even laid on a rousing chorus of The Fields of Athenry prior to kick-off.
On this occasion, however, O'Gara, the man who steered Munster to a brace of Heineken Cups and Ireland to the Grand Slam in Cardiff, was hauled off with the game in the balance. Sexton endured a nightmare start as Wales pinched their try and then missed a regulation penalty, allowing Hook to edge Wales further towards the finishing line despite a couple of wobbles. Nevertheless, a glorious touchfinder in the dying seconds gave Ireland hope and brought the youngster close to redemption.
Unfortunately, Paddy Wallace's butchering of a certain try with a step inside undid his work and settled things decisively for the hosts. Had Sexton not erred previously, would the Ulsterman have put Keith Earls over in the corner and trusted his fly-half to kick the touchline conversion and win the game?
Ireland will point to the error as the last act of a disappointing half, but Wales will rightly point to another scare survived. In recent weeks both Scotland and Italy have tested their resolve and defensive structures to breaking point and Ireland did the same. Hook kicked mercilessly and the chase was slow and methodical, inviting Ireland to try their luck from deep.
Wales' confidence in their systems will give cheer to Gatland and Shaun Edwards and their continued faith despite a nightmare start, when a try was coughed up almost immediately after kick-off, will be a reference point along the line. Perhaps all those losses against the southern hemisphere superpowers did the trick - there is steel in this side and the collective understanding that one lapse can mean everything at the sharp end.
Meat and potatoes did the trick on this occasion, but one thing that will soon be on the menu is a return to the buccaneering ways of old. With weapons like Jamie Roberts, Shane Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and the resurgent Lee Byrne at his disposal, Hook will be expected to turn on the style sooner rather than later, and he will need his team-mates to look after the ball more carefully. The fact that he will be itching for a chance to do so should put France on notice following another poor showing - and demoralising loss - in Rome.
Ireland have now kissed goodbye to a Triple Crown but will want to end with the performance that they have threatened this tournament. Expansive rugby was the order of the day in the first three rounds but penalties and errors overshadowed their efforts. The need to coax that performance out next weekend to secure any shred of momentum they can heading into their Rugby World Cup preparations. Good job that it's a Grand Slam-hunting England in town next weekend then. What more could an Irishman want?
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.