Ireland keep Six Nations title hopes on track after beating Wales
Jacob Stockdale bagged a brace, with Bundee Aki, Dan Leavy and Cian Healy also crossing for Ireland.
Ireland stormed ever closer to a NatWest 6 Nations title showdown with England by dismissing Wales 37-27 in Dublin.
Jacob Stockdale bagged a brace, with Bundee Aki, Dan Leavy and Cian Healy all crossing too as Ireland racked up a bonus-point victory to stun Warren Gatland’s Wales.
Visiting scrum-half Gareth Davies had vowed Wales would chase a bonus-point win of their own in Ireland in the build-up – but Ireland made a mockery of that prediction with a consummate, if nerve-jangling – triumph.
Peerless scrum-half Conor Murray’s sterling service greased the gears on Ireland’s smooth operation, with Joe Schmidt’s men even shrugging off Johnny Sexton unusually missing 10 points with the boot.
Despite dominating for large swathes, Ireland only ended up winning the day thanks to Murray’s late penalty goal and a last-gasp intercept score for Stockdale.
Head coach Schmidt’s Ireland men face England at Twickenham on March 17 in a tournament-closing encounter. On this evidence, Irish hopes will warm towards a potential St Patrick’s Day victory to treasure.
Eddie Jones’ England will doubtless prove a different proposition, but all that now stands between Ireland and that final-weekend showdown is the Scotland clash in Dublin on March 10.
Half-back Davies, Aaron Shingler and Steff Evans grabbed tries for Wales, but the visitors were outmuscled and outclassed, eventually.
Dan Leavy, Keith Earls and Chris Farrell all shone brightly as Ireland coped manfully without key injured trio Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw.
Not even Sexton’s off-kilter day from the tee, possibly down to his stiff back, could derail Ireland’s potent performance at the Aviva Stadium.
The scoreline failed to reflect Ireland’s supremacy, with the hosts unable to capitalise on mountains of territory and possession.
Ireland raced out of the blocks but Wales grabbed almost all the early advantage.
Halfpenny posted a tough penalty just two minutes in when Aki played the ball offside from Earls knocking on a Biggar crossfield punt.
The hosts subsequently bossed the first quarter, but Sexton missed three regulation shots at goal.
Those eight missed points hurt Ireland, despite Stockdale finishing well from Sexton’s smart cut-pass.
Davies sniped home for a Wales try to cut Ireland’s wind, the scrum-half capitalising on a powerful drive from Rob Evans.
Halfpenny’s conversion and a penalty put Wales 13-5 ahead fully against the run of play, before Ireland finally forced further dividend.
Sexton found his kicking boots to post a penalty after concerted home pressure, before Aki pounded through and stretched out to dot down Ireland’s second try.
The conversion saw Ireland carry a 15-13 lead into the break, a paltry return for such sizeable graft.
Rob Kearney’s botched long-range drop-goal attempt proved a speculative opening to the second-half, but Ireland kept pressing.
Kearney atoned with a fine half-break before feeding Earls on the right flank, with Murray clutching the inside ball at the second attempt to keep the move alive.
Leavy powered home for Ireland’s third try shortly afterwards, a fine fillip for a strong showing.
And the hosts bagged the bonus-point score comfortably inside the hour, courtesy of Healy’s short drive home.
Ireland kicked a penalty to the corner, lost the lineout – but forced Wales to carry over and dot down, for an attacking five-metre scrum.
Halfpenny scragged the breaking Murray, but Ireland kept calm, with Healy carrying on and finishing in style.
Just when Ireland thought they were home and hosed, Shingler popped up on the wing to coast over after the hosts simply ran out of defensive numbers.
Halfpenny’s stunning touchline conversion pushed Wales within seven points, but there was to be no stirring comeback.
Murray’s calm penalty nudge proved hugely important, as Wales sneaked a third try through wing Evans, conjured by Josh Navidi’s neat flip-pass.
Halfpenny’s conversion cut Ireland’s lead to just three points with as many minutes on the clock, only for Stockdale to hunt down that intercept score and cement the win.