World number one: Impressive Ireland claim top ranking for first time ever with win over Wales
Ireland 19 Wales 10
Ireland go to the World Cup as the world’s number one team on the official rankings after this dominant display against Wales earned Joe Schmidt and Rory Best one last memorable win at the Aviva Stadium.
They can depart for Japan with confidence on Wednesday after exorcising some of their Six Nations and Twickenham demons with a composed display reminiscent of their best work in 2018.
World Cups aren’t won before the departure, but if Ireland can build on this performance and add a few layers to their attacking game they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
The one cloud hanging over the side as they left the Aviva Stadium was the health of Keith Earls, who has been struggling with a knee tendonitis injury and left the fray midway through the second-half after receiving treatment on his left knee. Cian Healy also went off with a head injury at half-time, but he should be fit to travel.
It was a worrying sight and he’s a player Schmidt would be loath to lose, but there were plenty of positives for the coach after his final game at the stadium ended in victory.
After a shaky start, the Irish lineout recovered thanks to a smart calling display from James Ryan, who gave another outstanding performance.
Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki were a powerful centre combination and their aggressive tackling saw Ireland through some long spells of defending before half-time.
Johnny Sexton got through a decent hour before being wrapped in cotton wool, while Best, CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier all put in big shifts to erase the memory of their underwhelming outing in London.
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After being the centre of attention all week, Jean Kleyn had a mixed day, with his mobility within Ireland’s lineout and discipline a concern. Still, he made some good tackles and produced a couple of strong carries.
Leigh Halfpenny missed an early chance to punish Kleyn when the second-row stepped up too quickly, with the Wales full-back missing the type of kick he normally nails in his sleep.
Johnny Sexton followed that up by putting his restart into touch, but when Wales attacked down the blindside Rob Kearney snuffed out Halfpenny’s chip ahead before Josh Adams could get to it.
After a bit of back and forth between the two 10m lines, Wales got back into Irish territory when Bundee Aki got pinned in at the bottom of a ruck but Jean Kleyn and Cian Healy’s choke tackle on Adams eased the pressure on the home side.
Ireland were being forced to defend in their own half, partly due to their inability to win possession from their own lineout but Andy Farrell will be happy with the aggression and accurate tackling.
Rory Best won a big turnover penalty in his own ’22 and was spared the throw by Mathieu Raynal, who awarded Ireland a free-kick. Unsurprisingly, they went for the scrum.
Finally, they had a platform to attack and the impressive Aki broke the line and found Jordan Larmour wide as they got themselves into the ’22.
James Ryan knocked on, but Raynal was playing advantage for a Welsh offside and Sexton kicked it to touch.
At the third time of asking, Best found his man Ryan. The maul went nowhere, but they kept it alive and after a couple of big carries Conor Murray found Kearney, who stepped outside Jon Davies and beat Halfpenny to the line.
Sexton nailed the touchline conversion, but a clumsy challenge by Larmour handed Halfpenny the chance to narrow the gap and this time he made no mistake.
The Welsh looked certain to go in front when Dan Biggar read Sexton’s mind and picked off his pass, but Robbie Henshaw tracked the out-half down in sensational style and, with the help of Kearney, held him up over the line.
However, from the scrum Wales went through a couple of phases before Hadleigh Parkes ran a brilliant line off Tomos Williams to split the centres and score.
Halfpenny converted and, although Josh van der Flier made an excellent break Ireland couldn’t capitalise and went in three points down at half-time.
Despite losing Cian Healy to injury, Larmour got them on the front-foot within minutes of the restart as he pressurised Halfpenny in the air and then won a poach penalty from Adams.
Sexton turned down points and went to touch, but Wales again conceded a free-kick at the lineout and Ireland opted for the scrum.
Ryan was held up over the line, which gave them another chance to get something going off the set-piece and, after Wales strayed offside when Jack Conan picked and went, Best chose to go for another scrum to keep the pressure on.
Finally, they got their reward after Henshaw and Ryan went close as Furlong powered through Tomos Williams to score.
Sexton landed the conversion and Ireland kept their foot on the gas and they again turned the screw with their scrum to get into position, before Ryan got the score his brilliant carrying game deserved.
Sexton missed the extras as the coaches began to run their bench and Ireland went for the jugular, but despite their best efforts they couldn't quite get over the line.
Still, if Twickenham was deeply concerning, this was a reassuring way to finish a chaotic warm-up as Schmidt signed off at the Aviva with a trademark win that will have Irish fans dreaming big once more.
Ireland – R Kearney; J Larmour, R Henshaw, B Aki, K Earls (G Ringrose 53); J Sexton (J Carty 64), C Murray (L McGrath 72); C Healy (D Kilcoyne h-t), R Best (capt) (S Cronin 53), T Furlong (A Porter 57); J Ryan, J Kleyn (I Henderson 53); CJ Stander, J van der Flier (R Ruddock 59), J Conan.
Wales – L Halfpenny (L Williams 67); G North, J Davies, H Parkes, J Adams; R Patchell (D Biggar 22), T Williams (G Davies 70); W Jones (N Smith 60), E Dee (K Owens 60), T Francis (D Lewis 60); J Ball, AW Jones (capt); A Wainwright, J Tipuric, R Moriarty (J Navidi 60).
Ref – M Raynal (France).