Rampant Ireland will go for the Triple Crown against England at Twickenham in two weeks’ time after leaving Welsh hopes of achieving an unprecedented RBS Six Nations title hat-trick hanging by a thread.
IRELAND: Henry, Jackson
IRELAND: Sexton, Jackson
IRELAND: Sexton 4
Ireland’s emphatic 26-3 success leaves them with a 100 per cent record after two games, and Wales could have no complaints after being horribly outclassed in every key department.
Flanker Chris Henry’s first-half try, plus 14 points from the boot of Jonathan Sexton and a late Paddy Jackson touchdown that he also converted, meant midfield talisman Brian O’Driscoll could enjoy a sweet victory against Warren Gatland-coached Wales.
It was seven months ago that 2013 British and Irish Lions boss Gatland controversially dropped O’Driscoll for a Test series decider against Australia in Sydney. The Lions won 41-16, but there was no dream script for Gatland this time.
His ineffective team never threatened Irish dominance, with Leigh Halfpenny’s second-half penalty their only scoring contribution on an afternoon when the Irish forwards built an imposing victory platform.
Wales, despite fielding several of Gatland’s Test Lions, showed poor technical discipline and they had no answer to Ireland’s workaholic flanker Peter O’Mahony, who emphatically bossed the breakdown.
Ireland’s control probably deserved an even bigger margin of victory, and there is no doubt that new coach Joe Schmidt has already made his mark with players who look refreshed and reinvigorated.
But while England now stand between Ireland and a Triple Crown, it is back to the drawing board for Wales ahead of hosting France in 13 days’ time, when a win would keep them in the title mix, but a loss leaving them staring at mid-table mediocrity.
Wales suffered an immediate injury scare when prop Gethin Jenkins, recalled to the team for his 102nd cap, needed treatment inside two minutes, but the visitors soon settled and shaded early possession.
Ireland, though, went ahead through an eighth-minute Sexton penalty as the breakdown area lived up to expectations with both teams contesting it fiercely, but it proved just as physical in midfield, with O’Driscoll laid low by a crunching Scott Williams tackle.
A winded O’Driscoll resumed following a short delay, yet Williams was not so fortunate, departing after 17 minutes with shoulder trouble just before Sexton kicked his second penalty for a 6-0 advantage.
Williams’ exit meant wing George North was switched into midfield – the centre position he filled to great effect when Northampton stunned Heineken Cup rivals Leinster at the same ground in December – with Liam Williams going on as a replacement.
Ireland enjoyed the better of the close-quarter exchanges, with O’Mahony prominent, and wing Andrew Trimble almost broke the try deadlock 12 minutes before half-time through a weaving run that Wales frantically, but successfully, defended.
The action was fast and furious, yet Wales’ set-piece struggles had to have an impact at some stage, and Ireland duly punished them through a 32nd-minute try.
Lock Devin Toner won a close-range lineout, and an irresistible drive ended with Henry claiming his first Test try. Sexton added the conversion, and Wales found themselves in a considerable state of strife, desperately needing half-time to arrive so they could regroup.
There was no sign of Ireland letting up, though, as they continued to win most 50-50 scraps for the ball, leaving Wales facing an uphill second half struggle against a side that were the only team to defeat them in last season’s Six Nations.
Sexton got the second half scoreboard moving through an angled penalty, leaving Wales 16 points adrift and in dire need of inspiration as they faced a first Six Nations away defeat since March 2011.
Munster forward O’Mahony continued to be the game’s dominant figure, outplaying Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton at the breakdown, and Ireland’s forwards followed his stirring example.
Halfpenny opened Wales’ account with his first shot at goal after 56 minutes, yet that was quickly cancelled out through another Sexton strike which ensured Ireland maintained a comfortable advantage entering the final quarter.
Wales, traditionally strong finishers, rallied as the clock ticked down, and substitute prop Rhodri Jones went close to scoring before Ireland gained a penalty and cleared the danger.
Ireland then spent closing the stages in Wales’ half, their job done as they confirmed outstanding Six Nations title credentials with Jackson’s converted 79th-minute touchdown.