Video: Ireland on dark side of the moon
Published 06/02/2012 | 05:00
HOW do you recover from that? A third defeat in a row to the Welsh was always going to be hard to take but the manner of this two-point loss -- after a contest Ireland should have wrapped up long before Leigh Halfpenny's last-minute winning penalty -- leaves the Irish regarding their assignment in Paris with all the enthusiasm of hobbits heading to Mordor.
A six-day turnaround does not help, and France, after their comfortable win over Italy on Saturday, will have watched yesterday's Irish implosion with a relaxed sense of surety.
Much of the post-game focus will, inevitably, be on Ferrisgate -- a miscarriage of justice that saw Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris yellow-carded for a tackle on Ian Evans that did not even warrant a penalty and allowed Halfpenny to strike for gold.
That it came after Bradley Davies received yellow rather than red for a spear tackle on Donnacha Ryan that was at least as bad, if not worse, than the one which saw Sam Warburton sent off in the World Cup semi-final made it all the more painful, and the IRB need to bring consistency and clarity to this area because at the moment there is chaos.
When you throw in last year's illegal winning score by Mike Phillips in Cardiff (not to mention Wales' voodoo-like depowering of Ireland in the Wellington quarter-final) you could justifiably claim that Wales' hex over the Irish has assumed Biddy Early proportions.
But the bottom line is that Wales were allowed to score three tries that were all eminently preventable.
There is no case for the defence. True, Wales had a leviathan backline on show that would have done justice to most packs, but missing front-up tackles at this level is unacceptable and, following on from the soft scores conceded in Wellington, it can be categorically concluded that Ireland's defensive game has regressed hugely from the miserly operation which underpinned their Grand Slam in 2009.
When you are faced with a backline carrying as much power and menace as Wales', it is essential that you close down their time on the ball, but Ireland's line-speed was non-existent and there were no shooters to get in Welsh faces.
Of course, there was no Brian O'Driscoll (who used to excel in the shooter role) either and, despite their injury issues heading in, playing away from home, losing Warburton at half-time and Davies for 10 minutes at a critical juncture, it was still the Welsh who showed the greater composure.
The decision to let Jonathan Sexton take a long kick at goal on 73 minutes rather than go for a line-out deep in Welsh territory also assumes a different complexion after defeat. Ireland were ahead and seeking to close out the game but Sexton's miss allowed the Welsh back in.
Warren Gatland's side now have another Grand Slam in their sights. They are a quality outfit who play with a verve and belief that is frequently irrepressible and, in North, have a world superstar -- not merely big and eager (that's Matt Banahan territory) but intelligent and skilful to boot.
Jon Davies too was excellent, constantly asking questions of the defence with direct, aggressive surges and it was fitting that it was Davies (two) and North who were the Welsh try-scorers. Phillips and Ryan Jones were their other standout performers but it was a collective effort that, aside from the controversy, will have added to the growing momentum and confidence in Welsh rugby.
Ireland are on the dark side of that moon. No shortage of talent but struggling to transfer the assurance that infuses their provincial efforts in Europe onto the international stage.
They had some fine moments in what was easily the most entertaining and dramatic contest of the opening weekend of Six Nations action and scored two excellent tries, when they showed the type of extra invention post-Alan Gaffney they had promised in the build-up.
Donncha O'Callaghan and Jamie Heaslip had big games in the forwards and Rob Kearney led the way in the backline, with Fergus McFadden doing well until he ran into the train that was North in the build-up to Davies' second try.
The line-out work was excellent and, when they managed to get their quick ruck ball going, the Irish oozed menace, but it was the lapses in concentration which haunt them, and will prove disastrous in Paris.
Determined to avoid the slow start that crippled them in Wellington, Ireland tore into the contest, excellent kick-chase winning an early penalty for Sexton for a 3-0 lead after two minutes.
It set the right tone but a quick Welsh line-out saw Bradley Davies brush off Tommy Bowe far too easily to take Wales up to the Irish line, only for O'Callaghan to do superbly to get underneath Jones.
That good defensive work was badly undone after 13 minutes when Bowe was high and indecisive on Jon Davies, allowing the centre to scoot over Wellington-style. Rhys Priestland's conversion from wide on the left hit the post, and he did the same again shortly afterwards from a penalty as the visitors sought to exploit momentum.
Ireland engineered a straightforward penalty for Sexton, who missed badly to a chorus of worried murmuring. However, an excellent turnover by O'Callaghan set up position and, with McFadden to the fore, lovely hands between Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy and Bowe saw the winger feed Rory Best for the try.
Sexton converted for 10-5 and then knocked over a penalty just after half-time. At 13-5, with Warburton off and Priestland missing a third, straightforward kick, it seemed set up for Declan Kidney's men to pull away. However, indecisiveness in possession (Irish players kept running into each other) and more strong work from Jon Davies set up a penalty, this time entrusted to Halfpenny, and Wales were back to 13-8.
Cue North. He charged onto off-the-top line-out ball, outside D'Arcy and over McFadden before slipping an exquisite out-the-back pass to Jon Davies (who must love playing Ireland) for his brace.
Halfpenny converted for a 16-15 lead but Best (big game again) and Kearney, with another glorious high take, provided the necessary inspiration and Sexton pushed Ireland back into a 16-15 lead with 20 minutes to go. Shortly afterwards, Bradley Davies was binned and Ireland's opportunity for closure had arrived.
Huw Bennett had been tormented by the Irish jumpers all afternoon and when Ryan robbed a throw inside the Welsh '22', quick ball set up a period of intense pressure on the line before Ireland had the confidence to go wide and deep, with a superb pass from Kearney putting Bowe over.
Sexton missed the conversion and then a straightforward penalty which kept Wales within five points at 21-15, which looked crucial as North barged over for a deserved try, and though Halfpenny missed the convert, the full-back's shot at glory arrived soon after.
Sport is frequently decided on tight margins and that was certainly the case here. At this stage, the rub of the green is a concept Ireland must scoff at when it comes to clashes with the Welsh but, ultimately, they had the winning of this game without any recourse to luck, and they know it.
Wales can kick on under their soon-to-be-anointed Lions coach Warren Gatland, but the Six Nations already looks a grim assignment for Ireland.
It will take something remarkable in Paris to turn this championship around.
IRELAND -- R Kearney; T Bowe, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, A Trimble; J Sexton (R O'Gara 76), C Murray (E Reddan 76); C Healy (T Court 74), R Best, M Ross, D O'Callaghan (D Ryan 63), P O'Connell (capt), S Ferris, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Yellow card: Ferris 78.
WALES -- L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert (J Hook 40), J Davies, J Roberts, G North; R Priestland, M Phillips; R Gill, H Bennett, A Jones (P James 70), B Davies, I Evans, R Jones, S Warburton (capt, J Tipuric 40), T Faletau. Yellow card: Davies.
REF -- W Barnes (England).