Ireland's Grand Slam hopes in ruins as dogged Wales win Cardiff classic
Wales 23 Ireland 16
Ireland's Grand Slam dreams were shattered in the Millennium Stadium as a phenomenal defensive effort from Warren Gatland's Wales ensured there will be a dramatic last day conclusion to the Six Nations Championship.
Ireland's chances retaining their title are slimmer now after the heroic rearguard action from Wales; they scored just one try, a penalty try in the final quarter but despite creating several chances, they fluffed too many of them.
Scott Williams was the try-scoring hero for Wales, who had started the game ominously, building a 12-3 lead in double quick time before digging their heels in during the second period.
Ireland started the game without any intensity and they seemed to be chasing he game from he opening play.
It was an inauspicious opening; Rob Kearney spilled the restart and a minute of Warrenball ensued before Ireland went offside in front of their posts. 3-0 Wales in only the second minute.
Wales targeted Ireland's aerial supremacy this championship and from another victory in the air, they doubled their advantage. Kearney had failed to find the stands with a clearance, allowing his opposite number, Halfpenny, to kick and regather against his Lions rival.
And they were off gain, Jonathan Davies pummelling Sexton as Ireland were once more forced to concede a penalty. 6-0 Wales.
Wales were winning all the collisions and dictating the terms of the contact and the contest; Ireland weren't.
When they first managed to get some possession, they failed to break the gainline and actually conceded a penalty on the floor.
A couple of inches inside the Irish half was no problem for Halfpenny and he clinically punished he Irish transgressions. 9-0 and less than ten minutes into he game and Ireland faced a unique challenge in this championship; they needed to chase a lead.
Sexton's restart went out on the full, Jamie Roberts kicked and gathered his own aerial bomb as Wales continued to attack the supposed Irish strength; it as if the Welsh possessed a harvest of Gaelic Footballers.
Jack McGrath conceded his second penalty and Irelands fourth for not rolling away and Paul O'Connell received a team warning- Halfpenny dished out his own punishment with his fourth successive penalty. 12-0 and the first quarter had not yet elapsed.
A break in play, when Samson Lee was stretchered off, allowed Ireland to regroup; they put some phases of play together and when Wales conceded their first penalty, Sexton was offered a chance to open Ireland's account.
He missed but, when Tommy Bowe was taken high by Scot Baldwin when taking up the restart, Sexton was afforded another chance, this time from the right-hand side, he made amends and Ireland had opened their account; 12-3.
It had taken 18 minutes but Ireland seemed to be growing into the game; they spurned a penalty advantage and earned another penalty, this time closer to the corner which forced them to make a key decision.
They kicked to the corner for the game's first lineout but home captain Sam Warburton thieved Rory Best's throw from the grasp of Devin Toner.
Ireland then lost another throw when they had an attacking lineout on the 22; at least their scrum was functioning and they used that advantage to relieve some more Welsh pressure.
Wayne Barnes was losing patience with Wales and, though the home crowd called for Robbie Henshaw to be punished for an off the ball offence, it was captain Warburton who was binned for a technical offence.
Sexton punished it to reduce the gap to 12-6 but, when Ireland were guilty of conceding a penalty from their scrum dominance, deep in Welsh territory, another attacking opportunity was thrown away.
Wales, returning to Ireland's 22 after what seemed like an age, then set up a drop goal chance for Dan Biggar who put Wales 15-6 ahead with six minutes left to the break.
Ireland then produced the first real try-scoring chance of the game and centurion Paul O'Connell almost replicated Noel Mannion's try here 26 years ago.
Sexton was tackled off the ball by Rhys Webb, which the officials missed, but in any event Wales were happy to concede a three-pointer as they waited for their captain to return to the fray.
At 15-9, Schmidt needed to make sure he has his half-time instructions on the button because it was clear that neither Ireland's tactics nor accuracy were.
Wales lost another prop - Gethin Jenkins - at half-time but Ireland conceded an opening penalty while on the attack which killed any opportunity to gain early momentum while a Sexton kick out on the full was also poor.
A Simon Zebo error in his own 22, put his side under pressure and the errors were multiplying; Wales, too, were not finding any rhythm.
Then there was astonishing piece of play after 54 minutes and, indeed, what looked like 54 minutes of sustained pressure.
Wales rebuffed wave upon wave if Irish pressure with some incredible tackling and stout organisation and discipline; Conor Murray When they eventually secured a relieving penalty, the raucous crowd celebrated as if their team had scored a try of their own.
They soon did. After repelling three certain tries which the home side butchered, their didn't refuse a fourth invitation as substitute Scott Williams breezed past some pretty lacklustre defence to dot down under the posts to make it 20-9 after 63 minutes.
Ireland emptied the bench in desperation and they made an immediate impression but when Cian Healy knocked on as Ireland ran a quick penalty but then ignored a 5-2 overlap.
Wales cleared to halfway but back came Ireland again and they kicked to he corner when awarded a penalty on the Welsh ten metre line.
A superbly constructed maul was so efficient that Wales were forced to collapse it and Barnes awarded a penalty try; he conversion made far much easier than had it been scored in the corner, Sexton' extras made it just 20-16 with ten minutes left.
Could Leigh Halfpenny's own missed conversion just moments earlier prove crucial? A midfield mix-up between Cian Healy and Sexton hinted at the fact that time was running out. Then Healy was pinged for holding on in the tackle as Ireland desperately tried to inch their way into the opposition half.
Halfpenny made no mistake this time.
Ireland had one more chance; after Jon Davies was binned for a deliberate intercept, Ireland went to the corner for another lineout maul.
Wales stole the lineout but kicked poorly to touch.
Ireland formed another maul; this time, it was legally repelled and Wales won a scrum with just 14 seconds left on the clock.
Barnes whistled a penalty and Biggar kicked the ball dead; burying Ireland's Grand Slam dream in the process.
Wales: J Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, J Roberts (S Williams 60), L Williams; D Biggar, R Webb (M Phillips 66); G Jenkins (R Evans HT), S Baldwin (R Hibbard 58), S Lee (A Jarvis HT) , L Charteris, A Wyn Jones (J Ball 71), D Lydiate, S Warburton, T Faletau.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (I Madigan 76), C Murray (E Reddan 67); J McGrath (C Healy 55), R Best (S Cronin 60), M Ross (M Moore 60), D Toner (I Henderson 66), P O'Connell, P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Heaslip (J Murphy 72)
Referee: W Barnes (England)