Wales clinch dramatic victory over Ireland
February 5, 2012
Wales' Jonathan Davies touches down for the first of his two tries
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Wales claimed a dramatic 23-21 victory over Ireland in a sensational Six Nations clash at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
A last-minute penalty from Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny proved to be the match-winning score and ensured a thrilling end to an epic encounter featuring five tries, a feast of high-class rugby and more than its fair share of controversy.
A dominant Wales side found themselves trailing at the break having been guilty of not making their superiority pay with a try from Ireland hooker Rory Best and the boot of fly-half Jonathan Sexton eclipsing an earlier score from Wales' Jonathan Davies. The Welsh centre crossed again after the break only to see the hosts wrestle back control of the game with a try from winger Tommy Bowe.
The game looked to be slipping from Wales' grasp when lock Bradley Davies saw yellow for a tip tackle but man of the match George North dragged the visitors back into the game with a late try. With the clock running down, Ireland's Stephen Ferris was the next to be sin-binned for another tip-tackle and it proved costly as Halfpenny stepped up to win the game.
Ireland, looking to avenge their Rugby World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Wales, set their stall out early with a blistering start but the Welsh defence held firm with the hosts having to settle for a penalty from Sexton after scrum-half Conor Murray had been man-handled at the breakdown. But Wales offered plenty of invention of their own with Bradley Davies galloping down the touchline following a lineout to spark an intense spell of pressure that saw scrum-half Mike Phillips and North go close before Ryan Jones was held up by some desperate Irish defence.
Wales' eagerness got the better of them at the resulting scrum but their forwards atoned for their error a few minutes later in the latest of many bruising breakdown battles. But it was their backs who created the next telling opening with fly-half Rhys Priestland offering the latest reminder of his class. The Welsh playmaker drew two tacklers inside the 22 before a sublime offload found Jonathan Davies who held off a last ditch tackle from Gordon D'Arcy to dot down in the corner. Priestland was unable to add the extras with the first of a series of poor kicks that blighted an otherwise impressive showing.
Wales continued to dictate proceedings with Ireland forced to rely on a more speculative approach that led to Sexton's latest penalty attempt that also slipped wide of the posts. But they would rally for a crucial score four minutes before the break. Some slick handling had Wales scampering and when Bowe straightened inside the Welsh 22, the space opened up outside him for hooker Rory Best to coast home. Sexton rediscovered his range with the conversion to give Ireland a 10-5 lead as they headed to the tunnel.
An injury to captain Sam Warburton forced Wales to re-jig their line-up at the start of the second half and they had yet to find their rhythm by the time Sexton stretched his side's lead with his second penalty. Priestland's kicking woes continued with another ugly effort sailing wide but his forwards were not disheartened and promptly earned another shot at the posts with Halfpenny stepping up and landing the kick.
An error from Bowe gave them another foothold and from the subsequent lineout, Wales' impressive physicality came to the fore once more. Not for the first time, North proved more than a handful, brushing off a couple of poor tackles before off loading out the back of his hand to an on-rushing Jonathan Davies who raced away to score with Halfpenny's conversion giving his side the lead.
Back came Ireland with captain Paul O'Connell spearheading his side's riposte that resulted in another Sexton penalty that saw the game swing back in the hosts' favour. Wales refused to panic as the game entered the final quarter but their challenge suffered a huge blow when Bradley Davies was sin-binned for a tip tackle off the ball on Ireland replacement Donnacha Ryan who had moments earlier smashed into the Welshman at a ruck. Ryan escaped sanction but Davies too can count himself lucky with referee Wayne Barnes and assistant Dave Pearson deciding it did not warrant a red card.
Ireland wasted little time in turning the screw with two delightful passes from Sexton and fullback Rob Kearney putting Bowe over in the corner. Sexton failed to add the extras from outwide and he was also wide of the mark with a long-range penalty soon after to offer Wales a glimmer of hope and it was all they required.
Red shirts peppered the Irish defence that creaked under growing pressure. Lock Ian Evans made easy gains inside the 22 before the ball was worked wide to North who powered through three Irish defenders on his way to his side's third try. Halfpenny's conversion from the touchline drifted wide to leave his side one point adrift with less than five minutes on the clock.
Replacement Ronan O'Gara was introduced in the hope of steering the Irish home but Wales soon had their hands back on the ball. Ireland failed to shackle their rivals and another tip tackle from Ferris saw him sent to the sin-bin and Halfpenny handed the chance to win the game - which he duly did.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.