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Six Nations Rugby: Ireland's key performers failed to deliver

By Tony Ward

Let's begin where we went out. The better team on the day, playing the more tactically astute rugby, took the spoils on Saturday. When it really mattered, Wales were clinical in their execution.

In the end, we could have still stolen the draw. Would we have deserved it? For our late comeback in a gripping second half, few Welshmen would have complained... and yet. How often have we seen Saturday's situation in reverse? Ireland hanging on for dear life, sometimes getting there, as in recent weeks, and sometimes not, as against New Zealand at the start of the Joe Schmidt era.

Over time these things have a habit of balancing themselves out. Point being it takes little for those in green to recognise what the team in red put into Saturday's Millennium shoot-out. They had a plan to keep the ball out of touch, to compete with Ireland in the air and to pressurise at half-back.

On all three they hit the ground running and by virtue of Leigh Halfpenny's nerveless kicking in that opening quarter, it was then that the real damage was done.

By any Test standard, a 12-point lead is difficult to claw back but given the guaranteed intensity of this Cardiff encounter, we gave ourselves a mountain to climb. It was in so many ways a reverse of the previous games - particularly France and England - in terms of trend and ultimately the outcome but honest soul-searching (and Schmidt doesn't do any other kind) will see us come up with shortcomings beyond those of the referee.

I am not a Wayne Barnes fan but he was not responsible for us coming second at this time of asking. Credit Warren Gatland, and it pains me to say this, for getting the pre-rehearsed tactics pretty close to perfect in terms of execution.

We would be lauding our favourite coaching Kiwi had he done what Gatty did, so credit where credit is due for a think-tank victory on the day.

From an Irish perspective, we were slow out of the traps with too many of our key performers undercooked and undercharged. The suggestion that Jonny Sexton, for example, was nursing that hamstring carries little clout.

Once you take the field you are declaring yourself fully fit and ready for what it is the opposition is guaranteed to throw at you. Either way, it was the Irish playmaker-in-chief's least influential outing.

He wasn't alone but his discomfort was the most obvious. Rory Best, after a humdinger against the English, was another out of sorts, while Devin Toner and Peter O'Mahony were hardly mapped. Jamie Heaslip too was innocuous in his work at the breakdown.

Ironically, the most effective Irish player, given the emotional day that was in it, was the centurion wearing five. Paul O'Connell registered two Irish line-breaks - I'm struggling to identify another - although I felt both Sean Cronin and Iain Henderson made a significant difference when they came on.

Eoin Reddan, too, took the final quarter to a different attacking tempo but nowhere near enough to see us home.

Halfpenny set the early tone by way of his early fetch ahead of Conor Murray in mid-air.

The aerial dominance that followed in that opening half was all red. So much for this over-hyped nonsense about our innate Gaelic aerial skills.

But the three most pivotal moments came approximately five minutes either side of the hour.

The penalty awarded at the end of 30-plus phases of patient possession brought the biggest cheer of the day.

The psychological impact of that defensive masterclass was immediate. Within seconds, Scott Williams availed of a Heaslip mismatch, with Tommy Bowe on the defensive drift, and then when O'Connell, O'Mahony and Cian Healy between them flumped under the Welsh posts our day was done.

Suggested changes we will deal with later.

But this was Wales' day.

Belfast Telegraph

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