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Six Nations: Perfect start slips out of Ireland's grasp against Wales

Ireland 16-16 Wales

By Jonathan Bradley

A late Jonathan Sexton penalty at the Aviva Stadium ensured a first draw between Ireland and Wales since 1974 and, more importantly, saw both unable to kick-off their Six Nations campaign with a win.

A strong start saw defending champions Ireland lead by 13 points inside the first 30 minutes of the game but they failed to score for the following three quarters of an hour before Sexton knotted matters at 16 apiece with only five minutes remaining.

With the phase counter frequently ticking into the high teens, both sides sowed an ability to retain possession but line-breaks were largely few and far between in the face of robust tackling.

A pair of Sexton penalties and a Conor Murray try were cancelled out by the boot of substitute out-half Rhys Priestland and a score from Taulupe Faletau as Ireland had to overcame troubles in the scrum to earn the point when they should have been out of sight.

As Ireland's post-Paul O'Connell era dawned, the pervading mood of pessimism surrounding the team this week was matched only by the darkening clouds in Dublin.

Ireland, though, started in a much brighter fashion than anticipated in some quarters.

With the likes of Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony and Tommy Bowe long since ruled out, Ireland's cause was weakened further by the loss of Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney during the week.

With the memory of an undermanned Ireland exiting the World Cup at the hands of Argentina last October still fresh, the injury profile hardly augured well but it was Joe Schmidt's men who took control of proceedings.

As Ulster's Rory Best led the side out for the first time since being installed as O'Connell's successor, there was a surprise in the Wales line-up with Gareth Anscombe - son of former Ulster coach Mark - a late withdrawal thanks to a tight hamstring and replaced by Scarlets' Liam Williams.

If Ireland had planned to pepper the Welsh back-three with contestable kicks early on, the inclusion of Williams gave reason to think twice.

Instead, both sides recycled well and, for the game's first points, Ireland moved through the phases and reached a tally of 19 before Wales were caught offside.

Sexton took his time and bisected the posts with four minutes on the clock.

Wales showcased their own ability to retain possession but, despite moving through 20 phases, they failed to make headway, due in no small part to a huge tackle from the rock-solid Andrew Trimble on Alun Wyn Jones.

Devin Toner was perhaps not the player Schmidt wanted to see rampaging into the loose having scooped up the ball but Ireland advanced and, when Wales were pinged for not rolling away, Sexton duly doubled the lead.

The first of an unsettling number of scrum penalties bought an inaugural rendition of 'Land of my Fathers' after 20 minutes but Dan Biggar stabbed the penalty to the right of the posts.

It was the influential Osprey's last action, Rhys Priestland taking the place of the limping No.10.

The Bath replacement's mind was perhaps still elsewhere when he knocked on almost immediately and then kicked for touch rather than touching down when the outstretched paw of Toner sent an attempted box-kick bouncing over the whitewash.

The mistakes proved costly, Ireland keeping the ball tight off the resulting scrum before breaking through the Welsh line for Murray to get his fifth international score.

Thirteen points to the good, Ireland had a dozen minutes to negotiate before the half-time whistle. At the turn however, the advantage was a slender three.

First, after Keith Earls was whistled for a tackle on Williams, a penalty from Priestland gave Wales their first points in the 32nd minute.

Then, with Ireland's set-piece at its most unstable, Faletau wheeled right off the base of a scrum that seemed to be heading to the blindside and dotted down.

With 364 caps, three British and Irish Lions and two former captains on the visiting bench Wales will have felt optimistic when Priestland levelled matters from the tee four minutes after the interval.

The next half hour, however, saw the balance of power shift back and forth but neither side were able to really threaten.

Wales moved through 28 phases as the final 10 minutes approached only for Ireland to force a turnover. Almost immediately, Jack McGrath was called for holding on and Priestland kept cool to give his side the lead for the first time.

Much to the chagrin of Warren Gatland, that advantage was ceded with substitute prop Tom Francis whistled.

Sexton, in what was his last act, slotted home.

Ireland's schedule is unkind, with a six-day turnaround until a trip to the Stade de France followed by a week break and a visit to Twickenham, and Schmidt will count the physical cost of a draining test ahead of facing Les Bleus.

IRELAND: : Zebo, Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Earls, Sexton, Murray, McGrath, Best, White, McCarthy, Toner, Stander, O'Donnell, Heaslip.

Replacements: D. Kearney for Earls (71), Madigan for Sexton (75), S. Cronin for Best (75), Furlong for White (63), Ryan for McCarthy (63), Ruddock for O'Donnell (48).

Not Used: J. Cronin, Marmion.

Tries: Murray.

Cons: Sexton.

Pens: Sexton 3.

wales: L. Williams, North, J. Davies, Roberts, T. James, Biggar, G. Davies, Evans, Baldwin, Lee, Charteris, Jones, Warburton, Tipuric, Faletau.

Replacements: Priestland for Biggar (21), L. Williams for G. Davies (71), Jenkins for Evans (52), Owens for Baldwin (63), Francis for Lee (57), B. Davies for Charteris (61), Lydiate for Warburton (72).

Tries: Faletau.

Cons: Priestland.

Pens: Priestland 3.

Match rating: 8/10

Man of the match: CJ Stander

Referee: Jerome Garces (France)

Belfast Telegraph

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