Not since England arrived into Ballsbridge and derailed the Joe Schmidt project in 2019 have the Six Nations champions been so thoroughly emasculated on the opening day of their defence.
n front of the first Guinness Six Nations full house in almost two years, Andy Farrell’s team provided further evidence that they are developing something special. After a stuttering start to his tenure, the coach now presides over a team capable of playing a full-court game.
The conditions were so poor that at one stage Johnny Sexton threw his arms in the air after a gale caught a first-half penalty attempt and blew it towards Sandymount, yet the home team refused to let the weather dictate their play and took the game to Wales from the off.
With his first touch Mack Hansen hared up the left wing, with his second he laid on a try for Bundee Aki. That settled him in nicely, from there he went on to win the Man of the Match award. He had competition. Caelan Doris and James Ryan were relentlessly physical with and without the ball, the front-row all played a major role with Tadhg Furlong providing plenty of content for the tournament’s new sponsors TikTok.
We had a Brian O’Driscoll-esque try from the sublime Garry Ringrose, a banana conversion from Sexton, a pair of tries from Andrew Conway and some deft off-loading from Hugo Keenan, yet for all that those moments will please the social media gurus, it is the accuracy of the aggression that will please the coach the most.
Despite dominating the collision zone, Ireland went nearly 50 minutes without conceding a penalty. They went 76 without conceding a try. When it comes to Ireland’s title ambitions, the bonus point will be handy yet they’ll lament the inability to build more of a score deficit to reflect their dominance.
They carry a nine-match winning run to France, but only one of those victories came away from the Aviva Stadium. The Stade de France is a real test of their progress. To win in Paris, they’ll need to ride their luck and they got some good fortune in the opening moments when a Sexton kick rebounded off a Welsh leg and into Hansen’s arms.
The Aussie raced clear, the Welsh bundled the ball into touch and from the lineout Ireland made a statement of their intent. Josh van der Flier peeled off a maul and sent Doris up the guts, Furlong followed it up and when Ireland swung back towards the left touchline through a Tadhg Beirne pull-back to Sexton there was enough room for Hansen to find Aki wide to score.
Sexton delivered the touchline conversion, but the wind derailed two penalty attempts to build a score. He nailed a third attempt after Ireland cleverly worked themselves into position off a Welsh goal-line drop-out, but when Ringrose dropped the restart it began a period where Ireland struggled to get out of their own half.
Wales couldn’t make their territory count, however, with Jack Conan coming up with a big turnover on the deck and Sexton combining with Beirne to force a choke tackle.
Hansen did well to stop Johnny McNicholl after a poor Jamison Gibson-Park pass thundered off Aki’s knees, while at once stage Andrew Porter and Furlong combined for a thundering tackle on Taine Basham as another series came and went without success.
Any sense that their 10-point half-time lead might have been vulnerable was gone within four minutes of the restart when Conway took Sexton’s long pass and reached out a long right arm to finish a try of supreme quality.
The captain defied the wind to bend a superb conversion over and was then involved in the incident that fully turned the game in Ireland’s favour as Josh Adams mindlessly thundered into him off the ball and was sent to the sin-bin.
Ireland had been targeting the centre in defence all day, but it was when he was absent that they made hay – scoring their third and fourth tries while he was up in the stand.
Sexton dusted himself off and executed a lovely wraparound before finding Hansen and he fed Conway who surged forward. Ireland swung left, Doris put van der Flier through a gap and although Ryan butchered an overlap they kept it alive. When Gibson-Park floated a pass out to Conway, the Welsh — had run out of defenders.
In between tries, the Welsh had a rare visit to Irish territory extinguished and they found themselves 29-0 down when Porter stripped the ball they countered brilliantly, with Hansen racing into a gap and feeding Aki. He found Ringrose and the centre rounded Nick Tompkins brilliantly to score.
Things dropped off as the benches emptied and Wales managed a consolation score when a poor Conor Murray pass put Beirne under pressure and his wayward offload provided Basham with a gift.
Callum Sheedy converted, but by then the crowd’s focus had switched to the Mexican Wave. They were delighted to be back, in their absence Ireland have built themselves back into contention.
Scorers — Ireland: Conway (2), Aki, Ringrose tries; Sexton 3 cons, pen. Wales: Basham try; Sheedy con.
Ireland: H Keenan; A Conway (J Hume 63), G Ringrose, B Aki, M Hansen; J Sexton (J Carbery 64), J Gibson-Park (J Gibson-Park 69); A Porter (C Healy 66), R Kelleher (D Sheehan 63), T Furlkong (F Bealham 54); T Beirne, J Ryan (R Baird 66); C Doris, J Conan (P O’Mahony 53), J van der Flier.
Wales: L Williams; J McNicholl (O Watkin 63), J Adams, N Tompkins, L Rees-Zammit; D Biggar (C Sheedy 71), T Williams (G Davies 57); W Jones (G Thomas 53), R Elias (D Lake 53), T Francis (D Lewis 53); W Rowlands (B Carter 75), A Beard; E Jenkins, A Wainwright, T Basham.
Referee: J Peyper (South Africa).
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