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Grand Slam hopes alive as Ireland notch bonus-point win against Wales

Joe Schmidt’s men scored five tries in a stunning Six Nations clash.

Ireland 37

Wales 27

Murray Kinsella reports from the Aviva Stadium

A CONTEST THAT lived up to the billing and served up sickening tension in the closing stages, but Ireland also lived up to their status as favourites in securing an impressive bonus-point win over Wales that keeps their Grand Slam hopes well and truly alive.

Ireland players celebrate as Bundee Aki scores their second try Ireland's Grand Slam dreams are alive. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

There were nervy moments for Joe Schmidt and his team – with Johnny Sexton at out-half mixing the brilliant with the concerning – and yet they will be thrilled to have scored five tries against a Welsh defence that has been hard to break down in recent years.

This was a stunning Six Nations encounter full of sensational attacking play, an aggressive bite and mountains of drama. Ireland’s pack was superb, producing ball-carrying power, an impactful maul and some fine scrum efforts.

Jacob Stockdale’s last-minute interception try as Wales chased the game sealed the deal for Ireland, his second of the game – bringing his total for Ireland to eight in seven games.

Bundee Aki, Dan Leavy, Cian Healy also crossed the whitewash for Ireland, while the Welsh scored three of their own to give them hope.

Outside centre Chris Farrell was absolutely outstanding and was deservedly named man of the match, while Andrew Porter stood up superbly at tighthead prop in Tadhg Furlong’s absence and 21-year-old James Ryan was excellent in the second row with Iain Henderson missing. Dan Leavy at openside, too, was brilliant.

Joe Schmidt has spoken about the growth of Ireland’s depth since the 2015 World Cup and here was proof in bucketloads – with the less experienced members of the team leading with composure.

Elder statesmen such as Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Devin Toner were excellent too and Ireland can now enjoy their down week with the knowledge that the Grand Slam is on ahead of the final two rounds against Scotland and England.

Chris Farrell with Samson Lee Farrell was superb for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A decider in Twickenham on St. Patrick’s weekend looks a very real possibility.

Farrell made a strong start to his third cap by smashing Leigh Halfpenny on kick chase but Aki picked the ball up in an offside position after an Earls knock-on in the air, referee Glen Jackson awarding a penalty that Halfpenny slotted for a third-minute Welsh lead.

Sexton hit the post with his first penalty soon after but Wales attempted to run out of their 22 and Scott Williams’ wide pass floated forward, giving Ireland the scrum platform for the opening try.

Farrell, CJ Stander, Cian Healy and Leavy all carried well off the set-piece and with penalty advantage in play, Sexton threw a delicious skip pass beyond Aki and two Welsh defenders to find Stockdale on the left touchline, where he dove past Halfpenny to score.

Sexton was wide with the conversion and then missed his second penalty effort too – a cry of “Come on Wales” from the crowd as he approached the ball perhaps distracting him.

The place-kicking failures appeared to encourage Wales, who made two excellent strips in the tackle as they withstood more Irish attack – the second of them leading to Sexton having to scramble the ball into touch after Wales kicked behind Schmidt’s men.

Finally inside the Irish 22, Wales struck clinically – accentuating Ireland’s failure to score more points with their early territorial dominance.

Gareth Davies celebrates scoring their first try with Dan Biggar Gareth Davies scored for the Welsh. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Aaron Shingler beat Rory Best’s tackle to bring momentum before Aki slapped down a Rob Evans pass. With his team-mates appealing for the penalty, scrum-half Gareth Davies pounced on the bouncing ball and slipped inside Stockdale, beating the covering James Ryan to the tryline for a try converted by Halfpenny.

The fullback missed a penalty chance to extend the Welsh lead in the 25th minute but was on target three minutes later after Rob Kearney kicked the ball out of Biggar’s hands on the ground.

A stunning linebreak from Earls, before a powerful Ryan carry and some sharp work down the left by Farrell, Leavy and Stockdale led to Sexton finding the target with a penalty as we moved towards half-time, drawing Ireland back to a 13-8 deficit.

And a needless offside penalty from Shingler gave Ireland one final attacking platform of the half, with their shift maul making big metres infield before the forwards ground through phase after phase of battering close-in carries.

The pressure yielded a seven-point return when Aki brilliantly finished in a fashion similar to his try againt the Italians, cutting back against the grain onto a Murray pass, riding tackles from Scott Williams and Ken Owens, then stretching out his right arm to dot down.

Ireland went to the half-time break with a 15-13 lead and momentum firmly on their side.

Jonathan Sexton kicks a penalty Sexton had some issues off the tee early in the game. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It grew even further early in the second period, with Stockdale’s hit on Biggar forcing a knock-on. On the transition, Kearney offloaded to Earls wide on the right, before the wing’s pass inside was gathered skilfully by Conor Murray.

Ireland went back into their grinding close-in phase play and again delivered the try, with the superb Leavy driving over from close-range, aided by the presence of Best in front of him. Sexton converted from under the posts for a 22-13 advantage.

Healy was the man to notch Ireland’s bonus-point try, slamming over at the end of another passage of meaty Irish carrying five metres out, all stemming back to stifling kick-chase pressure from Earls, Farrell and Kearney.

Sexton was off target with his conversion effort and Wales weren’t ready to throw in the towel, as Biggar beat Kearney in the air to launch their next cutting attack.

Steff Evans and Liam Williams made bid yardage wide on the left and then Hadleigh Parkes swung a wide pass back to the right, where Josh Navidi was able to comfortably draw in Kearney and feed Singler to score.

Halfpenny’s superb conversion from out wide drew Gatland’s side back to 27-20.

Bundee Aki celebrates Bundee Aki scored a first-half try for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A 68th-minute penalty for Ireland in a highly kickable position handed them the opportunity to move back into a 10-point lead but Sexton oddly opted to take a surprise tap penalty and was caught by the Welsh.

Ireland knocked-on on the next phase, a major let-off for the Welsh.

Another knock-on by replacement Fergus McFadden handed the visitors an attacking scrum in the 72nd-minute but Davies then produced a handling error at the base of a ruck as the tension mounted and mounted.

But Ireland’s scrum replacements – John Ryan, Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath and Quinn Roux in behind them – delivered impressively to win a 76th-minute penalty and Murray calmly stepped up to the tee with Sexton being treated and slotted the three points to the utter delight of the Dublin crowd.

Still Wales were not finished as Evans scorched over wide out on the left after a superb Williams offload and good hands from Navidi, with Halfpenny’s conversion giving Wales a chance at 30-27.

But they had to force the issue in search of a winner or an equalising penalty and Stockdale picked off Gareth Anscombe’s long pass with predatory instinct to finish the Welsh off.

Ireland scorers:

Tries: Jacob Stockdale [2], Bundee Aki, Dan Leavy, Cian Healy

Conversion: Johnny Sexton [2 from 4], Joey Carbery [1 from 1]

Penalties: Johnny Sexton [1 from 3], Conor Murray [1 from 1]

Wales scorers:

Tries: Gareth Davies, Aaron Shingler, Steff Evans

Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny [2 from 2]

Penalties: Leigh Halfpenny [2 from 3]

IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Keith Earls (Fergus McFadden ’63), Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton (Joey Carbery ’76), Conor Murray; Cian Healy (Jack McGrath ’63), Rory Best (captain) (Sean Cronin ’71), Andrew Porter (John Ryan ’67); James Ryan, Devin Toner (Quinn Roux ’74); Peter O’Mahony (Jack Conan ’67), Dan Leavy, CJ Stander.

Replacements not used: Kieran Marmion.

WALES: Leigh Halfpenny; Liam Williams (George North ’63), Scott Williams, Hadleigh Parkes, Steff Evans; Dan Biggar (Gareth Anscombe ’63), Gareth Davies; Rob Evans (Wyn Jones ’56), Ken Owens (Elliot Dee ’56), Samson Lee (Tomas Francis ’56 – reversal ’75); Cory Hill (Bradley Davies ’63), Alun Wyn Jones Capt; Aaron Shingler (Justin Tipuric ’63), Josh Navidi, Ross Moriarty.

Replacements not used: Aled Davies.

Referee: Glen Jackson [NZR].

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Murray Kinsella

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