Irish title dreams go up in smoke as Wales breathe fire
Irish dreams of a tilt at the Six Nations title evaporated in the Cardiff cauldron in a game that boiled with tension and drama.
The hopes of a final day championship decider against England wilted under Friday night lights, as Ireland played their first evening clash at the Principality stadium.
A game that swung on small errors and marginal decisions left fans gasping for breath and exhausted at full time.
A Friday night match had brought its own challenges for the travelling supporters. There were days off work to be booked, taxis at dawn, pints over breakfast in Terminal Two.
The mood was quiet, cautious onboard the early flight. Then the surreal shock of arriving into Cardiff city centre before lunchtime, with eight hours to kill before the match. Sure might as well sample some of the local hospitality. Just the one or two, mind, as there was a long day and night ahead.
Four hours later the city centre was rocking. Welsh fans joined the party - finishing work early, swapping suits for jerseys. Trains from the valleys disgorged their human cargo, pouring into St Mary Street. Songs drifted out into the spring air - was it 'Bread of Heaven', 'The Fields of Athenry', or possibly 'The Rose of Tralee'? At times it was hard to tell.
But despite the almost interminable wait, rugby legend Shane Byrne was convinced the Friday night factor could work in Ireland's favour. The former Leinster and Ireland hooker was on the early flight out of Dublin.
"It is going to be a long day for the players and the supporters too," he said.
"Some of them will be crawling to their seats in the stadium later on! But at least they might get back to their wives earlier on Saturday..."
Unlikely, as many of the travelling Green Army looked set to enjoy the best hospitality Welsh pubs could offer for the next 48 hours solid. Even if it will be more inquest than celebration.
It was all so unexpected for the travelling faithful, who were in buoyant mood.
Stephanie O'Callaghan from Mallow, Co Cork, and her friend Kerri Lyons from Kiltale, Co Meath, had gone for the "hardcore" option of a day trip to Cardiff. Even though their flight wouldn't get them home until well after midnight, they were also in favour of the late kick-off. "We're very confident, we have the luck of the Irish with us," said Kerri.
As kick off approached one supporter counted 58 soldiers on the pitch, unfurling gigantic Welsh flags. "It's like Rourke's Drift," they opined and what followed on the pitch was not far off either.
Wales shut the roof and welcomed Ireland to the "biggest nightclub in the world" where amid the flames and fireworks the rugby can sometimes seem like a distraction.
But there was no danger of that this time: it was a pot boiler of a game. This was no on stand, ready-meal rugby. It simmered, it stewed. The flavours deepened slowly.
But between a head injury assessment and yellow card the out-half spent far less time on the pitch than the Green Army would have liked. George North was on fire, scoring two tries in Johnny Sexton's absence.
Hymns and Arias threatened to dominate the playlist as the nightclub got rowdy. Ireland raided deep into Wales territory again and again.
We had reached boiling point. Pride, championship and Lions places at stake.
Irish fans roared as they thought they'd scored with minutes to go, only for referee Wayne Barnes to haul them back. It was a brutal moment, as fans slumped back into their seats, the hopes of silverware were wrenched away.
The charged-down kick. The old warhorse Jamie Roberts kicked on. Try. Ireland's title dreams were smoke.