It was a week when forecasts of all sorts were a bit wide of the mark. If you were one of the 52,000 punters who fetched up to Lansdowne Road yesterday fearing that a weather front would kill this game before it started then you will have been pleasantly surprised.
It was into the second half before the temperature dropped a few degrees and the heavens opened, and by that stage another thing we hadn't expected had materialised: this was no one-score game that would be open for business right up until the moment the shutters came down on 80 minutes.
It was unfortunate for Wales that when the conditions went from pretty good to pretty awful they had a 16-point deficit to overhaul. Not ideal, that. Their other problems had little to do with luck however. They were outplayed everywhere, reflected in a penalty count of 8-2 at the end of the first half, and 17-9 by the time referee Wayne Barnes, who had a good game, wrapped it up.
Fittingly, the last decision of the day went against Mike Phillips, who was carded for yet another over-reaction, though oddly it didn't involve yet another penalty. That came after replacement Liam Williams had slid dangerously into Paddy Jackson, who would have been wiser to put the ball down sooner in scoring Ireland and the game's second try, in the last minute. The Wales scrumhalf had been spoken to twice earlier for barking at the ref, and indulging in afters, but by that stage his frustration had bubbled over.
Small wonder. You could almost see the steam coming out of his ears throughout a contest where a good number of their penalties were conceded at the breakdown. Sometimes you fear for the well-being of Peter O'Mahony, who has an unfortunate habit of leading with his head in the tackle. Evidently it's driven by massive desire, and his ability to turn over Welsh ball had a big bearing on the game.
So did Ireland's low error count. Both wingers, Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney, had excellent games, with Trimble especially carrying out Joe Schmidt's demands to dominate the skies. Kearney, meantime, is incredibly adept at getting over the advantage line, regardless of the situation.
Further infield, Ireland were strong too, with Gordon D'Arcy's footwork a constant source of go-forward against vastly superior physical odds, and Brian O'Driscoll solid in getting another step closer to a successful send-off. The halfback combination was outstanding though: Johnny Sexton was excellent out of hand and off the tee, while Conor Murray, who went to Australia last summer as the third-choice scrumhalf, is firmly installed now as the best in the competition.
That so many backs could play so well spoke volumes for the quality of the forward pack, who had the Welsh lineout under pressure throughout. The scrum wasn't an issue either, and by the time the traffic off the bench had changed most of the front row combatants Ireland were on top there as well.
The only issue Ireland had to contend with over the 80 minutes was the struggle to get some headway into their game in the opening quarter. Frequently in that period Wales had lots of defenders on their feet, leaving Ireland going into contests against superior numbers. Getting over the gain line intact looked a real struggle but the encouraging aspect for the home side was the gradual decline in Wales's discipline.
Dan Lydiate was often the prime offender. Gethin Jenkins didn't fare so well either. Sexton was on the money, taking six points from two ruck penalties in the first quarter. His only miss of the day was a massive effort to close the first half, taken on more as a means of getting to the changing room than in expectation of success.
By that point Wales were in real trouble and the measure of how well Ireland were doing in the air came in the delivery of the game's first try. Rob Kearney did brilliantly to reclaim a Garryowen in a one-to-one duel with Leigh Halfpenny around the Wales 10-metre mark, and from that possession Sexton nudged a lovely rolling kick in behind Rhys Priestland, forcing the red 10 into touch five metres from his own line. Perfect.
You didn't need psychic powers to figure that Ireland would maul the ball if they secured it, and sure enough they chose the safest option in Devin Toner. Wales were thrown a bit by the maul getting a little change of direction and once that was secured it virtually ran over the line for Chris Henry to score his first Test try. Wales had worked hard during the week on their lineout defence but it was wasted. This was a real area of strength for the home team.
Sexton nailed the conversion with a great kick to give Ireland a 13-0 lead, which, in the context of what had been such a tight game, was broad daylight. Ireland's approach had been conservative enough, which made sense in the circumstances. It wasn't going to change in the second half when the weather turned and there was a lead to defend.
Six minutes into the new half Sexton stretched that lead after Jenkins was picked up for taking out a lineout lifter. It woke Wales up. They established territory and racked up phase after phase in the Ireland '22', only to see O'Mahony get his mitts on it when they had less than 10 metres to go and good momentum behind them. There was more than half an hour to go at that point but you couldn't see Wales coming back after that setback.
Halfpenny did pick up three points on 56 minutes, after Martin Moore – who is putting increasing pressure now on Mike Ross – was done by Barnes at his first scrum. Sexton cancelled out those points with a penalty on the hour mark, and, save for a Welsh charge that ended in a penalty for double movement against Andrew Coombs, Ireland's canter to the finish was stress-free.
Ireland: R Kearney; A Trimble (F McFadden 61), B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton (P Jackson 75), C Murray (I Boss 80); C Healy (J McGrath 68), R Best (S Cronin 73), M Ross (M Moore 55); D Toner, P O'Connell (capt)(D Tuohy 55 (T O'Donnell 64)), P O'Mahony, J Heaslip, C Henry.
Wales: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, S Williams (L Williams 17), J Roberts, G North; R Priestland, M Phillips (yc 80); G Jenkins (P James 71), R Hibbard (K Owens 61), A Jones (R Jones 61), A Coombs (J Ball 72), AW Jones, D Lydiate (J Tipuric 72), T Faletau, S Warburton (capt).
Referee: W Barnes (England)
Two down and three to go. The two that are down have been squared away without the concession of a try. The only injury of note over the course of those two games has been to replacement Dan Tuohy, who has a suspected broken forearm. Bad luck that it happened so soon after he came on for Paul O'Connell, who had run out of gas. Worse again that Tuohy's form has been so good.