Grand Slam dreams still alive as Ireland survive nervy finish to claim bonus point win over Wales
Ireland 37 Wales 27
If Ireland do go on and win this NatWest Six Nations they are ensuring a highlight reel of some quality.
This campaign is as dramatic as any we have seen in recent seasons, with a second game out of three going right down to the wire.
It was hearts in mouth stuff to the last as Steff Evans crossed for a try with two minutes to go and Leigh Halfpenny converted to make it a three point game.
But as Wales pushed for an unlikely win, Jacob Stockdale rushed up and picked off Gareth Anscombe’s pass to put the result beyond doubt.
Ireland expect to welcome Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson back for Scotland in two weeks’ time, but there are lingering concerns over Johnny Sexton who was excellent with ball in hand but had an off-day with the boot and ultimately handed the kicking duties over to Conor Murray.
He is key to the chances of winning a third Grand Slam in Irish history on St Patrick’s Day, but Ireland showed that their depth has improved massively in recent seasons with Chris Farrell, James Ryan and Dan Leavy impressing throughout while Stockdale and Bundee Aki crossed for three tries between them.
Andrew Porter held up his bargain at scrum-time during a stellar shift and Joe Schmidt’s game-plan of holding on to the ball for long passages worked a treat, even if the team did almost run out of steam towards the end.
It was breathless stuff from the off.
Wales had an opportunity to take the lead after just 30 seconds as Evans forced Keith Earls to knock on Dan Biggar’s cross-kick and Aki played the ball offside. Halfpenny served notice with a brilliant long-range penalty.
Sexton hit the post with a much easier chance to cancel that score out almost instantly as Rob Evans was penalised for not releasing the tackled player after Farrell had claimed a delicious restart from the out-half and James Ryan had made a big carry as a follow up.
Wales messed up their exit, however, as Scott Williams’ wild wide pass drifted forward offering Ireland a golden attacking opportunity in the visiting ’22.
Ireland went direct, with Farrell, CJ Stander, Cian Healy and Leavy carrying hard to the Welsh line before Sexton called for possession and his cut-out pass was enough to put Jacob Stockdale over in the corner.
Sexton missed the touchline conversion but another opportunity came Ireland’s way minutes later as the Welsh went off their feet at a ruck and the out-half nudged his team into the ’22.
Ireland’s maul marched forward, but as it veered towards the touchline Conor Murray had to peel off and Aki couldn’t hold the pass with referee Glen Jackson taking some of the blame for an awkward position.
Sexton missed his third kick at goal in the 15th minute after Peter O’Mahony had won a breakdown penalty, but despite not making the pressure pay on the scoreboard the home side were dominating possession and territory until Davies stripped Sexton and they finally got out of their own half.
Not for long as Ireland sprang Sexton who first burst out of the ’22 and found Rob Kearney before putting Stander through a big gap, but again after a long series of phases the Irish coughed up possession.
And Wales made them pay with their first try of the afternoon as Ireland paused as Aki got a hand on a pass, only to deflect the ball into Davies’ hands and the scrum-half stepped through the cover deftly to score.
Halfpenny converted as Ireland stood shocked under the posts, five points behind after dominating the game.
Stockdale might have got them back into it as he almost fielded Biggar’s under-cooked cross-kick, but the ball slipped through the winger’s fingertips.
Halfpenny missed a penalty from inside his own half after Aki was penalised for crossing, but he made no mistake from closer in after Biggar beat Rob Kearney to a high ball and the falling full-back was harshly adjudged to have kicked the ball in the ruck.
The Wales full-back then produced a superb covering tackle to deny Keith Earls who surged through off a Sexton pass, but again the Welsh held firm through a long defensive set and Ireland had to settle for three points, which Sexton finally delivered from in front of the sticks.
And they drew level in first-half injury time, punishing a silly penalty concession by Aaron Shingler as one final long series of phases culminated in Aki powering through two Welsh defenders to score and Sexton converted to give his side a deserved two point lead at the break.
Kearney missed a long-range attempt to extend it with a drop-goal upon resumption but they extended their lead minutes later as Biggar spilled the ball after fielding it high, Ireland attacked wide through Earls whose pass Murray just held and Leavy forced his way over from close range.
Sexton converted and then turned down a kickable penalty to go fourth try, Shingler stole the lineout but Ireland forced Ross Moriarty into conceding a scrum by hammering him behind his own line.
The scrum wobbled, but Murray got it out in time, Sexton surged towards the line and then Cian Healy bullied his way over from close range.
Sexton missed the touchline conversion to keep faint Welsh hopes alive and an Irish knock-on from the kick-off handed the visitors a rare opportunity to attack.
Earls almost got a fifth off a brilliant Peter O’Mahony turnover, but a combination of Shingler and Halfpenny just did enough to deny him racing on to his own chip ahead.
Instead, it was Wales who drew themselves back into the game through their excellent wide attack. Biggar claimed a brilliant high ball to establish field position, Steff Evans made big gains up the left and Parkes delivered a superb pass under pressure to find Josh Navidi and he found Shingler to score.
Halfpenny made it a seven-point game as both sides went to the bench for replacements as the toll of an attritional game told.
Rather than stretch his side’s lead to 10, Sexton tapped a kickable penalty conceded by Scott Williams but it led to nothing other than a Wales scrum and an injury to Murray.
He played on, but Wales broke out from the scrum and a Fergus McFadden knock-on handed his opponents a set-piece in the Irish half.
George North stood Kearney up, but Leavy got over the ball and messed it up for Davies who knocked on.
Ireland finally put the matter to bed as Jack McGrath won a scrum penalty and with Sexton receiving treatment Murray stepped up to give his side a 10 point lead.
With four minutes remaining, that looked like that, but instead the Welsh attacked with yet more width and worked another overlap through Scott Williams’ off-load out of Aki and McFadden’s tackle which released Navidi and he put Evans away.
Halfpenny converted to make it a three point game, but as Wales pushed for the winner and pushed the envelope Stockdale pushed up and picked off Gareth Anscombe’s pass to put it to bed with Joey Carbery adding the extras for good measure.
IRELAND – R Kearney; K Earls (F McFadden 64), C Farrell, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery 77), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 64), R Best (capt) (S Cronin ), A Porter (John Ryan 66), James Ryan, D Toner (Q Roux 74; P O’Mahony(J Conan 67), D Leavy, CJ Stander.
WALES – L Halfpenny; L Williams (G North 65), S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans; D Biggar, G Davies; R Evans (W Jones 56-74), K Owens (E Dee 56), S Lee (T Francis 56); C Hill (B Davies 65), AW Jones (capt); A Shingler, J Navidi, R Moriarty (J Tipuric 65).
Referee: G Jackson (New Zealand)