Six Nations: Wales 22, Ireland 9
Ireland's Six Nations go down in flames after convincing Welsh display
For all the talk of wilting daffodils heading into the Cardiff contest, Ireland instead got a roaring Welsh dragon as their Six Nations hopes went down in flames.
With Rob Howley’s men having already ceded any claim to this year’s crown, the hosts were playing to salvage some pride in the Principality Stadium after losses to both England and Scotland and the result was a contest played at a shuddering intensity.
Wales ultimately prevailed 22-9 thanks to a brace of scores from the under-fire George North, with Jamie Roberts providing the icing on the cake in the final minutes.
Ireland could only muster three penalties in response, and simply weren’t clinical enough, but still thought they had the game in their hands when captain Rory Best crossed the whitewash late on only for referee Wayne Barnes to rule out the score for an infringement in the maul.
In the end they took home not even a losing bonus point and will take on England in Dublin next weekend with only the carrot of derailing England’s own championship motivations.
Friday nights under the lights and under the roof of the Principality Stadium certainly has a unique feel and those in attendance were as raucous as expected but, even still, amidst the throng of those soaking up the last drops of Cardiff atmosphere outside the ground, there was more demand to offload rather than pick up tickets.
There was little sign of that come kick-off, with every one of the 74,000 seats seemingly occupied for a rousing rendition of the anthems and anyone that did decide against attending will have missed an engrossing Test.
The tone was set from the off, even if it was the men in green that made the early headway.
Sexton kicked his side into an early lead and Ireland would threaten more soon after, only for the first sign of wastefulness to creep into their play.
With a quarter of an hour gone, a carry that was notably bullish even coming from from Stander had the Irish in good voice but the penalty it brought came to nothing when Ireland were turned over at the lineout thanks to the intervention of Alun Wyn Jones.
In what had been an intense opening quarter, Sexton was the first casualty as he departed for an HIA, to be temporarily replaced by Paddy Jackson.
With the Ulsterman coming in cold, Wales wasted no time in attacking his channel.
A sublime pass from Webb out to Halfpenny capitalised on the line-break and, when the ball went wide to North, the combined efforts of Zebo and Earls could not halt his charge.
The wing let out a primal roar crossing the whitewash after a fortnight when he garnered plenty of criticism for his showing against Scotland.
Ireland regrouped, and Jackson stroked over a penalty, just as Sexton readied for a return to the fray.
The uncomfortable moments were far from over for Ireland’s half-backs though.
First Conor Murray took a heavy blow in the process of tackling North and received lengthy treatment before valiantly trying to continue.
Clearly favouring shoulder when passing, one of Schmidt’s most influential figures was clearly severely limited.
And as Wales attacked just before the half, Sexton would be forced into another spell on the sidelines, this time through a yellow card, as Halfpenny kicked the resulting penalty for the half-time lead.
And while Murray somehow emerged after half-time, he was soon to the fore again, gathering a bouncing kick in behind from Webb and being forced into touch by Halfpenny.
With Ireland still a man down, Wales made light work of creating another score for North when the ball came out of the resulting line-out maul.
It was to be Murray’s last stand, as Connacht’s Kieran Marmion was sprung for the bench after Halfpenny’s conversion.
He made an impact with his side in possession, bringing a tempo absent since Murray was hobbled with heavy Ireland pressure eventually bringing a penalty in front of the posts.
That kick brought Schmidt’s side to within six but, despite Best crossing after a maul, Barnes pinged Henshaw for joining the maul at the side.
And when substitute Jamie Roberts crossed late, it was all she wrote for Irish hopes both on the night and in the championship.