George North sent Ireland’s title ambitions south after responding to a warning about his form with two tries in a thunderous encounter that left the watching Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, reconsidering his options for the tour to New Zealand. The result means England will, like last season, retain the championship with a round to spare if they defeat Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday.
Ireland needed to win to set up a potential title decider with England in Dublin on Saturday, but they failed to muster even a bonus point after being outfought and, far more surprisingly, out-thought by opponents who reacted to second-half collapses against England and Scotland by maintaining their focus as well as their fire.
North, who was given a warning by the Wales management after a limp defensive display in Scotland, epitomised the home side’s resolve. He came off his wing in the opening minute to launch a midfield move and there was menace in everything he did. Ireland knew they would be facing opponents who would be fired by fury, but they were hustled into mistakes throughout.
Their half-backs, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, were denied time and space and Ireland cracked under the pressure, failing to a score a try, despite a surfeit of possession, and conceding three. A side that was so bold and assertive in victory against New Zealand four months ago appeared to suffer from overconfidence, kicking a penalty to touch in the opening quarter rather than going for the posts, and then losing the lineout.
They wasted three of their open throws and, when they did roll a maul towards Wales’s line with 11 minutes to go and trailing 15-9, Rory Best was close to being able to touch the ball down for a try when the centre Robbie Henshaw joined his forwards to add momentum. Best duly touched down but the try was ruled out because Henshaw entered the maul from the side and was penalised. It was a mistake which summed up a scratchy, haphazard performance.
Sexton was taken off for a head-injury assessment in the first half after receiving a knee in the face inadvertently, from Jonathan Davies, and had 10 minutes in the sin-bin either side of the interval after killing the ball on his own line. Murray lasted 44 minutes, unable to continue after he tackled North in the first period and injured his left shoulder. With their half-backs disabled, Ireland lacked direction and a team noted for its efficiency became erratic.
Gatland was caught on television frowning two minutes from the end. Much as he would have taken satisfaction from a typically robust display in adversity from the team he is taking a sabbatical from this season, a match high on intensity and collisions – Ireland made 40 tackles in the opening 10 minutes – will not have alarmed the All Blacks. North stood out for his impact and the Wales scrum-half, Rhys Webb, for his decision-making, but there was overall more heat than light. With England failing to react to the unexpected against Italy in the previous round, the Lions will need to rise above the standard of this championship mentally.
The match turned during the time Sexton was in the sin-bin. Ireland were leading 6-5 when he saw yellow after a ruck near the visitors’ line. He appeared to have been held in by two Wales players but it showed how Wales were switched on in a way they had not been in the previous two matches.
Sexton was unfortunate in the sense that, when Justin Tipuric wilfully killed the ball near his line after CJ Stander had dented defenders, the penalty was not followed by a yellow card even though it was Wales’s third offence at the breakdown in as many minutes. It was not, though, a hard luck story for Ireland because Wales had devices to go with their desire.