JOHNNY Sexton kicked a penalty six minutes from time to preserve injury-hit Ireland’s unbeaten RBS 6 Nations home record under Joe Schmidt and stall Wales’ stirring fightback.
A 16-16 draw – the first between Ireland and Wales since 1991 – meant that both sides’ Grand Slam hopes floundered at the first hurdle, yet they played with such fearsome commitment and intensity to still suggest strong title ambitions.
Ireland led 13-0 after 30 minutes through scrum-half Conor Murray’s try and eight points from Sexton, but Wales hit back through a Taulupe Faletau touchdown, plus three Rhys Priestland penalties and a conversion after he replaced the injured Dan Biggar. Wales led by three points with time running out, but Sexton came up trumps when it mattered.
The visitors were forced into a late change, with full-back Gareth Anscombe sidelined because of a tight hamstring. Liam Williams replaced him.
Ireland handed a debut to South Africa-born Munster flanker CJ Stander but a number of injuries meant they were without star names like Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien.
Ireland, though, made a bright start that Sexton converted into points with an early penalty before Wales stirred through some sustained attacking play that had centre Jamie Roberts at its forefront.
But they were guilty of not taking try-scoring opportunities out wide and Ireland regrouped to launch another period of pressure before a second Sexton penalty doubled their lead.
Biggar, his left foot heavily strapped after taking an early knock, then sent a penalty attempt wide. Wales’ coaching staff hauled Biggar off after 22 minutes and the visitors struggled to regroup, with Stander going close to a try.
But Ireland did not have to wait much longer, as further sustained pressure driven by Stander and lock Devin Toner resulted in Murray crashing over from close range, with Sexton’s conversion putting Ireland 13-0 ahead.
Wales opened their account through a 31st-minute penalty and, after three powerful scrums, they turned pressure into more points when Faletau broke off the back and finished superbly, claiming a try that Priestland converted.
Priestland hauled Wales level through a 46th-minute penalty yet Ireland looked more dangerous with ball in hand, which was underlined when an arcing Sexton break almost resulted in wing Andrew Trimble crossing.
It was tense stuff as both sides continued to batter away at each other before Priestland edged Wales ahead with seven minutes left. But the lead lasted barely two minutes. Wales infringed 40 metres out and Sexton found the target to tie things up once more.
Stander, who made an impressive debut, said: “Both teams came out and played great rugby. I’m proud of the boys to hold on at the end.
“When we had the ball we did some great work. In the first half we were flying, the second half we slipped a bit but it was a good effort.”
Ireland could be left to fret on Sexton’s fitness after he left the field with five minutes to play seemingly suffering a chest problem. Keith Earls and Tommy O’Donnell also left the action and will undergo a concussion assessment.
Jerome Garces (Fra)