Vintage O'Driscoll rolls back the years
Tom Hamilton at the Millennium Stadium
February 2, 2013
Brian O'Driscoll was like a master puppeteer - he had the match on a string © PA Photos
The first game of the 2013 Six Nations teed up a classic. It was a bloody, battering, pulsating game of rugby and one that has set the standard for the other 14 matches in this tournament yet to be played.
But it will be one remembered more fondly by the Irish contingent in the stadium. It was a delightful interweaving of Irish experience and youth that compounded Wales to their first Six Nations defeat since 2011. Rob Howley's men are now on the wrong end of eight defeats in a row and their Grand Slam heroics of last year seem an eternity away. Rather than the heroes worshipped by the Welsh crowd, it was two moments of individual genius from Brian O'Driscoll and Simon Zebo that were the toast of the Millennium Stadium alongside some astonishing displays of bravery from the Irish defence.
They do love a good Six Nations match in Cardiff. The trains were fit to burst and the pubs in Westgate Street were already spilling out on to the pavements by 11am. But the confidence and swagger of the Welsh fans and players alike have now been dealt eight harsh blows since the 2012 Grand Slam-winning match in the Millennium Stadium. There has been little to sing about or indeed toast, but Wales' players took one hell of a beating in a first-half that saw them go into the break 25-3 down.
There are few rugby stadia to match the Millennium Stadium; red and green packed close together each hoping their team confounds the doubters. But after eight minutes, even those wearing red had to sit back in awe, maybe stifling a gasp at the genius of O'Driscoll. It could be his last Six Nations but there was sparse evidence on the field to suggest that he is past his best. And while he might be feeling the bumps and bruises the following day that little bit more than when he made his Test debut in 1999, his movement and step which created Simon Zebo's try after eight minutes, a shimmy which fooled a potential Lions 13, 14, 15 combination of Jonathan Davies, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny, was a joy to behold.
It was the old genius calling the shots in the centres and also, on occasion, for certain penalties despite Jamie Heaslip being the official recipient of the captain's armband. This is the sort of stage that he thrives on, he had that unique twinkle in the eye when he scored Ireland's third try; for the good of rugby, here's hoping that the body manages to carry on for a while longer.
But while O'Driscoll's days in the Six Nations are coming to an end, Zebo's are just beginning. A few years ago, the clip of Lionel Beauxis controlling the ball with his instep, while playing for Stade Francais against Bath, and then catching it was playing in a super slow-mo loop by all who had rights to the Heineken Cup. Zebo's audacious piece of skill where he took a pass on his heel, juggled with the ball and collected it deserves similar recognition.
The result, following the charge down by Rory Best that teed up the whole move, was Cian Healy ploughing over the line. Ulster meets Munster meets Leinster - it incorporated everything that was great about the 2009 Slam-winning side - opportunism, handling and clinical finishing.
Credit to Howley's men, when faced with a 30-3 deficit after 43 minutes, they dug deep and very nearly pulled it out of the hat. But while everything clicked for them 12 months ago, the ball often missed Welsh hands and instead found touch. They had the added benefit of playing half of the second 40 against 14 men but this did not deter Ireland that repelled wave after wave of Welsh attacks. In the end the two teams were locked on three tries apiece, but that does not do justice to Ireland's defence.
© PA Photos
Craig Gilroy produced a try-saving tackle on Leigh Halfpenny but the true heroes were Sean O'Brien and the second-row pairing of Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan. O'Brien put in a huge shift, making 23 and missing just one tackle, while McCarthy managed 18 and Ryan 16, both without missing one. In total Ireland made 176 to Wales' 101.
It was a win built on the foundations of defence with that touch of added brilliance from the two backs.
Wales can look back on the second-half showing with some solace but they have trailed at the break in six of their last eight matches. Winning a Test match is hard enough, but coming off that platform on a near-constant basis must be energy-sapping. There were some positives for Howley to take ahead of their trip to France next weekend. Toby Faletau put in a performance reminiscent of his showings during the 2011 World Cup while it is no coincidence that Justin Tipuric's entrance in the 44th minute changed the match - from there they conceded no points and scored 19. He worked brilliantly in tandem with Sam Warburton, who also put in an assured showing, and turned the tide of the breakdown. But while they fought back valiantly, it was in vain.
Wales will now have six days to regroup. The walking wounded took another beating. They headed into the match without a number of front-line players but even some of those taking to the field looked like they were struggling. Cuthbert had his thigh and arm heavily strapped while Jamie Roberts was also sporting some heavy bandaging.
Howley now has some important calls to make on team selection ahead of the match with France. But while their Grand Slam aspirations are already over, Ireland's are just beginning. There is a long way for Declan Kidney's men to go if they are to emulate the crop of 2009, but the other five nations should be wary - O'Driscoll, complete with Terry Butcher-esque bandage, is flying and he is showing no signs of slowing down.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.