George North scored a brace as Wales beat Ireland 22-9 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on Friday. MARIETTE ADAMS reports.
The result all but ends Ireland’s Six Nations title aspirations, with England and Scotland now the only teams left in the race.
General consensus before the game was that the Irish would have too much firepower for an inconsistent Wales, but the hosts outplayed their counterparts in an absorbing clash.
Despite Ireland dominating possession and territory, Wales surprisingly won the breakdown and aerial battles. Flyhalf Johnny Sexton had put Ireland in the lead with a seventh-minute penalty, but North, who copped criticism from all parts this past week for his slump in form, finished well in the corner.
CJ Stander went on a storming run down the left flank. Wales struggled to cover lost ground in defence and conceded a penalty, but Ireland made the mistake of kicking to the corner instead of going for the three points on offer. The ball was lost at the lineout, enabling Wales to clear their lines.
Moments later, brilliant interplay between the Welsh backs, including a perfectly executed skip pass from Rhys Webb to Leigh Halfpenny, led to a try at the other end for North.
With the conversion going awry, Ireland would retake the lead through the boot of Paddy Jackson, but Wales hit back on the stroke of half-time as the momentum swayed once again. Sexton, just back from a head injury assessment, cynically killed Wales’ go-forward ball close to the tryline and Halfpenny edged the hosts into an 8-6 half-time lead with a penalty.
The second half continued in the same fashion, with Ireland wasting several scoring opportunities, while Wales took their chances well.
North was a man on a mission. Four minutes after the restart, he completed his brace with a well-worked effort down the blindside from the back of a lineout drive. Sexton would add his second penalty to close the deficit, but Ireland looked out of sorts, which was summed up by a 26-phase attack inside the 22 that didn’t result in a try. When Ireland did eventually cross the tryline, referee Wayne Barnes disallowed the try, ruling an obstruction had taken place at the front of the driving maul.
Wales continued to pile territorial pressure on Ireland and in the 78th minute, with Ireland trapped inside the 22 and trailing by six, a poor exit kick was partially charged down and replacement Jamie Roberts pounced to seal the deal for Wales.
There was never going to be a fairytale comeback for Ireland after that, but Wales kept the ball alive as they went in pursuit of a bonus point, which would have given them a slight shot at the title, but they had to be satisfied with only four log points.
Wales – Tries: George North (2), Jamie Roberts. Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny (2). Penalty: Halfpenny
Ireland – Penalties: Johnny Sexton (2), Paddy Jackson.
Wales – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans.
Subs: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Tommy Bowe.
Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images