Ireland's chance of a Grand Slam to back up their Championship win of last season ended in Cardiff yesterday with a 23-16 defeat to Wales.
In a hotly-contested Test match, long on excitement in the second half but short on quality rugby throughout, Joe Schmidt's team came second despite exerting huge pressure on Wales in the final quarter. The result stopped Ireland going into record territory with what would have been 11 consecutive wins.
Ireland go to Edinburgh on Saturday, where they have lost their last two games - the World Cup warm-up in 2011, and the Championship tie in 2013 - looking for a big enough win now to unseat England who have taken over the leadership on points difference following their 25-13 win over Scotland at Twickenham yesterday. They are level on table points with Ireland and Wales but lead them by four and 25 respectively.
Moreover, England have the advantage of playing last, at home to France, so will know exactly the scale of the climb when they set out in Twickenham.
With Wales facing Italy, who will have to cope with a six-day turnaround after today's match with France in Rome, it's conceivable that Ireland will finish third in the Championship when they might have started Saturday going for a Grand Slam.
Coach Joe Schmidt pointed first to Ireland's slow start when assessing the defeat.
"We allowed Wales to control the first quarter with territory and possession," he said. "In the second half we put some good phases together, made a few line-breaks and got in behind them pretty well.
"But they scrambled and defended really well. They have massive character and they are very organised."
Despite losing both props by the start of the second half, as well as having two players yellow-carded subsequently, Wales were good value for yesterday's win where the first half was dominated by penalties, with Leigh Halfpenny outscoring Johnny Sexton 5-3.
Ireland had the bulk of both territory and possession after the break but couldn't break down an incredibly resolute home defence which made 289 tackles to Ireland's 104.
"We were confident (of winning the Six Nations) even after the first game when we lost to England," said the man of the match Sam Warburton.
"The majority of Championships are not won with Grand Slams now. There is still a lot of work to do. We can't just go to Italy and expect to win. That's probably the most exhausted I've felt after a Test match.
"It was an unbelievable effort. I could not have asked for more.
"Ireland, to their credit, kept coming and had lot of phases but our defence was so tough. All we had to do was keep our discipline. We did, and we won."
It was an especially disappointing day for Ireland captain Paul O'Connell, winning his 100th cap.
His performance merited the award picked up by Warburton, and while he will be back here for a World Cup warm-up in August, it was his last Championship game at the Millennium Stadium.
The second last play of the game saw Warburton steal a lineout from the Ireland captain with the Wales line under siege.
"It's something we've been working on, getting Sam up there," Warren Gatland said. "When you spend a month together and you're working on something every day, it sometimes comes to fruition. Our discipline was outstanding today."
Schmidt, however, insisted "it's not back to the drawing board" for Ireland, although he admitted Wales beat Ireland at their own game, dominating the tactical kicking battle that has been such a strength for Schmidt's side. "Yeah; it's funny there wasn't really that much tempo earlier in the game," said Schmidt when asked if Wales adopted Ireland-style tactics in victory. The tempo came into the game in the second quarter.
"They won the first four balls in the air, so they did really well. And I don't think you can take anything away from Leigh Halfpenny and Jamie Roberts in the way that they did that."
Sunday Indo Sport