Keith Earls injury caps nightmare afternoon for Ireland
These warm-ups are often described as a necessary evil and the dark side of the equation came out when Keith Earls lay prone on the ground midway through the second-half and had to be stretchered off with what appeared to be a neck injury.
Ireland 10 Wales 16
Three weeks after his Munster team-mate Tommy O’Donnell was ruled out of the World Cup with a dislocated hip, the sight of the luckless 27-year-old being carted off did nobody any good at the Aviva Stadium.
It was as if the city knew things were going wrong as the heavens opened and the thunder rolled as the clock ticked towards full-time. After seeing their team-mate prone on the ground, Ireland appeared to lose interest.
Earls was the most serious casualty, but it promises to be a busy few days for the Ireland medical staff after Richardt Strauss and Peter O’Mahony needed treatment before coming off, while Johnny Sexton was icing his arm after he was replaced.
Luke Fitzgerald had been set to come off before Earls went down after cramping up during the second-half, but he had to be replaced when his problematic hip flared up five minutes later meaning Jordi Murphy finished the game in the centre. It was shades of Rome in 2013, but this time losing the game hardly seemed to matter at the end as Joe Schmidt contemplated the nightmare scenario for who now has major question marks over several players before naming his squad for the World Cup on Monday.
This was the final audition for those hoping to force their way into Schmidt’s final 31-man panel. The coach begins calling those who haven’t made it tomorrow and had plenty to digest as he left Dublin 4.
While the fringe positions are top of his agenda, he will have banked Iain Henderson’s performance for future reference. The Ulster lock marked his outing with a barnstorming try, but he also added physicality around the field in a display that will have had Devin Toner squirming.
Alongside him, Paul O’Connell marked his final appearance on home soil with a typically energetic display, but Ireland’s ill-discipline and problems at the set-piece will annoy him.
This represented a step up in class for Ireland after their wins over an understrength Wales and Scotland and they found themselves 10-0 behind after a helter-skelter half-an-hour in which they were tested far more than they had been so far this season.
Wales need to hit their peak right from the off given their place in the pool of death and they looked sharp on their visit to Dublin, causing Ireland head-aches at set-piece and carrying hard through the middle.
Warned by referee Craig Joubert not to hold mini-conferences going into lineouts, Ireland seemed a little rattled and their inability to hold possession on their own throw was a worry.
With the scrum being marched backwards, it meant for long defensive shifts and there was a tangible improvement in that area after a less than impressive effort against Scotland.
Ireland opened brightly and might have scored when Sexton’s cross-kick went a little too far for Earls to gather, but as the half went on it was Wales who looked stronger as Ireland ceded territory and possession thanks to a higher-than-normal penalty count.
Leigh Halfpenny punished Strauss’s coming in from the side to open the scoring after 18 minutes with a fine touchline effort, but captain Alun-Wyn Jones turned down another opportunity minutes late as he went for the jugular.
From the lineout, Wales mauled and Ireland pulled it down. Joubert gave the penalty and Wales went again, with the home pack repeating the offence.
On the third attempt and with the referee’s warning fresh in Irish ears, the red pack slowly ground their way over and Justin Tipuric came up with the ball.
Halfpenny converted and, while Ireland looked to respond, the early pace appeared to tell and the error count grew, disrupting any flow.
Sexton narrowed the gap after a decent spell and Schmidt would have been happy to see the way his side finished the half, eschewing three points to go for the Wales line after finally getting some reward at scrum-time deep in the opposition ’22.
At the second attempt, Henderson walked through Dan Biggar and over the line with three Welsh defenders hanging on to him. Sexton converted, and the scores were level at the break.
Ireland changed tack slightly after the interval, with Sexton pinning Wales back with clever kicks, one of which almost created a second try as the chasing Rob Kearney and Henderson forced George North into touch.
A clever frontal peel saw Sean O’Brien come within inches of scoring, but he spilled the ball and Wales escaped.
Back they came and Halfpenny was able to add six points from the tee to re-establish their supremacy as the weather turned and the benches emptied and Ireland’s discipline cost them.
Despite a makeshift backline, conditions worsening and a struggling scrum, they mounted one last effort but Sean Cronin's final lunge was held-up by Aaron Jarvis over the line.
Not that it really mattered. It won’t be long before that result fades to black, the focus now shifts to the injury list and the final 31.
IRELAND – Rob Kearney; Dave Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls (Felix Jones 64); Johnny Sexton (Paddy Jackson 64), Conor Murray (Eoin Reddan 64); Jack McGrath (Dave Kilcoyne 61), Richardt Strauss (Sean Cronin 51), Nathan White (Tadhg Furlong 57); Iain Henderson, Paul O’Connell (capt); Peter O’Mahony ( Sean O’Brien 52), Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip.
WALES – Leigh Halfpenny; Alex Cuthbert, Scott Williams, Jamie Roberts (H Amos 61), George North; Dan Biggar (Rhys Priestland 64), Rhys Webb (Gareth Davies 64); Gethin Jenkins (Paul James 47), Ken Owens (S Baldwin 55), Tomas Francis (Aaron Jarvis 54); Bradley Davies (Luke Charteris 54), Alun-Wyn Jones (capt) (James King 73); Dan Lydiate (James King 51 - 61), Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)