Wales spent the first 50 minutes trying to live up to claims from the other side of the Irish Sea that they did not have many more redeeming qualities than Italy. They were trailing 13-6 against a side that had been playing with 14 men since the 14th minute, when the experienced Peter O’Mahony was sent off for a dangerous challenge, and had little idea about how to exploit their numerical superiority.
Ireland had taken refuge in their favourite tactic, keep-ball, garnering penalties and points before taking the lead two minutes before half-time when Robbie Henshaw changed direction, stepped inside Justin Tipuric and away from Taulupe Faletau. One phase later the former Scarlet Tadhg Beirne took advantage of Cian Healy’s clear-out to give his side a deserved lead.
Wales had lost their previous four Six Nations matches in their worst run since 2007 and their interval talking-to made no difference as Ireland continued to dominate possession (they finished the match having had the ball for 61% of it), but two moments of the enterprise and opportunism their head coach, Wayne Pivac, was hired to foster yielded two tries in 10 minutes and left their opponents with too much to do.
The first came after Ireland had attacked from just outside their 22, the kind of risk frowned on by their previous head coach, Joe Schmidt. They lost the ball, won it back and regained it again. Then Nick Tompkins, a first-half replacement for Johnny Williams – one of four players who failed a head-injury assessment in a match that had a high casualty list – picked up and Josh Navidi, who came on in the 11th minute for Dan Lydiate, fed George North with a pass out of the back of his right hand. Lydiate’s knee injury is likely to rule him out for the rest of the tournament.
North was dropped during the Autumn Nations Cup when his confidence faded along with his form but was picked in the centre with Jonathan Davies injured. Navidi’s pass gave him space on the outside and once he is into a gallop he remains hard to slow down never mind stop. Three defenders tried and failed and although Leigh Halfpenny’s missed conversion meant Ireland still led, Wales started to generate energy in an empty stadium.
Their second try came after Wales had a lineout on Ireland’s 22. Beirne stole the ball but the referee, Wayne Barnes, warned Ireland they could not kick directly into touch. When they did so, Wales had a throw 15 metres out: the ball was tapped back messily, but Dan Biggar, Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens made a few metres each before Tompkins and Halfpenny moved the ball quickly to Louis Rees-Zammit on the right.
The Gloucester wing had a scintilla of space as Iain Henderson closed in but he is quick into his stride and, knowing he would make the line, contorted his body so that he touched the ball down as his legs were over the touchline but in the air. A player who only turned 20 on Tuesday would probably not have played had both Liam Williams and Josh Adams not been suspended but he looks someone for the present, never mind the future.
Halfpenny’s third penalty put Ireland out of bonus-point range and they lost Johnny Sexton to a head injury with 11 minutes to go. His replacement, Billy Burns, kicked a penalty to reduce the deficit to five points but Wales held firm. As the countdown clock reached zero, they had the chance to kick the ball dead but instead sent it downfield. Ireland were awarded a final penalty, just inside their opposition half and Burns aimed to kick it into touch five metres from Wales’s line.
With Sexton watching from the sidelines, Burns’s kick went five metres the wrong side of the corner flag and Wales celebrated their first victory against a side in the top 10 of the world rankings since they overcame 14-man France in the quarter-finals of the 2019 World Cup.
“Billy had to go for distance because a lineout 10 metres out would have been no use and I told him that,” said Sexton, who along with Ryan has to pass head injury protocols to be available for selection against France in Dublin on Sunday.
Wales will have to make at least four changes for Scotland on Saturday with the short turnaround ruling out the concussed Johnny Williams and Hallam Amos while Lydiate’s injury is long term and Tomos Williams pulled a hamstring a the end of the opening half.
Ireland felt Johnny Williams should have had at least a yellow card for his 25th-minute tackle that left Henshaw shaking his head on the floor. He was allowed to play on for three minutes before being called off.
“We have a number of walking wounded and will make an assessment on Monday, but we will be without at least four for Scotland,” Pivac said. “It was a mixed bag from us, but we got the win we needed.”