Ireland are on track for their first Six Nations title since 2015 after edging Wales 37-27 in Dublin.
The Irish have beaten France, Italy and Wales now and are unbeaten after three rounds, with Scotland and England left to play. The final round against the defending champions at Twickenham next month is looming to be a blockbuster and likely the title-decider.
At the Aviva Stadium Ireland had to do it the hard way against an outgunned but brave Welsh. They ran in four tries but an off-kicking day for Jonathan Sexton, and Wales’ tremendous fighting spirit, kept the scoreline close. It was a high-octane start with both teams launching early towering bombs. After just 50 seconds Ireland were penalised for offside and Leigh Halfpenny hat a shot at goal, making it 3-0.
Less than a minute later and the home team had a penalty attempt of their own, but Sexton missed. It didn’t matter as Ireland got the ball back straight away and Sexton threw at outrageous cut-out pass for Jacob Stockdale to score in the corner. The fly-half couldn’t convert the try, indicating it was going to be a difficult afternoon for him with the kicking tee.
The Irish were camped in Wales’ half and the visitors couldn’t find a way out. They were coughing up regular penalties and in the 14th minute Sexton had another shot, but again missed. The number 10 was struggling with the boot but his passing and running game was near perfect. Sexton continued to open up the Welsh defence and put his teammates through holes.
If Wales were using a rope-a-dope strategy, it worked perfectly. After a turnover and a good kick downfield, Wales had the ball near Ireland’s line for the first time and didn’t waste it. The ball popped out awkwardly and Gareth Davies stepped his way over brilliantly for a try. They had been purely on the backfoot but after 22 minutes Wales had the lead 10-5.
Halfpenny inched them further ahead eight minutes later. The men in red were edging themselves away in the contest after a slow start. But Ireland roared back and after a Keith Earls break put Wales under more pressure. They earned another penalty and this time Sexton nailed it, his first of four kicks, to make the score 13-8.
Just as half-time dawned Ireland launched another attack. Off a lineout they built phase after phase, slowly powering forward. Wales’ defence started to creak and centre Bundee Aki burrowed through. It was the perfect end to the first half for the home team, giving them a vital 15-13 lead.
At the break the stats showed that Ireland had a whopping 78% of possession and an imposing 84% of the territory. Wales had conceded six penalties to just three from Ireland, also making a staggering 71 more tackles than their opponents. It reality it was a miracle Wales were still in the fight. Ireland had to wonder how they were not much further in front.
The second half started well for Joe Schmidt’s side, with Earls again damaging with his footwork. Just four minutes in Dan Leavy crashed over for a try. Sexton converted and suddenly the score for Ireland looked a lot more comfortable.
All that tackling Wales had to do in the first half started to have an impact. Errors crept into their performance and Ireland sensed blood in the water. Cian Healy was the next to score, the prop taking advantage of some relentless pressure to touch down. At 27-13 down with 26 minutes left the visitors in real danger.
But they refused to give up. In the 61st minute Wales had a big overlap on the right flank and Aaron Shingler danced over for his first try for his country. At 27-20 Warren Gatland’s team had a lifeline. With five minutes to go Conor Murray slotted a penalty to ease Irish fears.
However Wales weren’t done yet and struck back straight from the restart. An offload from Scott Williams put Josh Navidi into space and Steff Evans finished it off. Halfpenny’s conversion cut it to 30-27 with two minutes left. Tension rose around the Aviva. Wales dared to dream, but with the game going into extra time, Stockdale intercepted a Gareth Anscombe pass to get his double.
Ireland were finally home safe and remain on track for the Grand Slam.