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Ireland's Six Nations title hopes sink after frustrating defeat in Cardiff

Joe Schmidt’s men were second best at the Principality Stadium.

Wales 22

Ireland 9

Murray Kinsella reports from the Principality Stadium

MADNESS WAS PROMISED in Cardiff under the Friday night lights, and Wales and Ireland conspired to deliver a frenetic, chaotic and brutal affair that has almost certainly ended Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations hopes with one round left to play.

George North celebrates scoring their first try George North was a key man for the Welsh. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ireland had their chances, many of them. But consistent profligacy in the Welsh 22, particularly from close-range set-pieces was incredibly costly, as Schmidt’s side failed to score even a single try.

With England favourites to beat Scotland tomorrow, they may well be coming to Dublin next weekend as the 2017 Six Nations champions.

A victory for the Scots in Twickenham can keep the Irish title dream alive by a thread, but it is now out of Schmidt and his players’ hands. Even if the Scots were to win against England, Ireland would need to beat Eddie Jones’ men in Dublin and hope for Italy to claim victory at Murrayfield on the final weekend.

A late Welsh score for replacement centre Jamie Roberts rubbed salt in Irish wounds that will fester for some time. Earlier, 10 minutes for Johnny Sexton in the sin bin had seen Ireland give up 10 points to leave themselves chasing the game.

The out-half had also departed for a Head Injury Assessment in the opening half, Ireland conceding the first try of the game immediately after his exit, the linebreak coming right down the Irish out-half channel in defence.

Ireland’s error count was far too high on such a make-or-break occasion, with handling mistakes repeatedly stymying attacking progress. Their defensive effort was, at times, sensational as they made 154 tackles, but Wales had a cutting edge, and also defended superbly.

Having come under intense pressure this week, following the recent defeats to England and Scotland, Rob Howley’s men delivered an angry response, with double try-scorer George North a constant torment to the Irish defence.

Man of the match Rhys Webb was in stunning form throughout, playing a central role in both of North’s tries and outperforming Conor Murray, who Ireland lost to an arm injury early in the second half.

In truth, Murray probably should have departed earlier with that injury – caused by the barrelling North – but Schmidt opted to leave him on the pitch with one working arm.

An aggressive start from Ireland led to Sexton opening the scoring with a penalty from 40 metres out, to the left of the posts, and the visitors’ linespeed was a notable feature, with the out-half picking off a Webb pass as the Welsh looked for a response.

Jonathan Sexton leaves the field after being yellow carded Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Sean O’Brien levelled Dan Biggar on the next Wales attack, while Robbie Henshaw twice produced momentous hits, and despite progress upfield into Ireland’s 22, Jonathan Davies knocked-on to end the pressure.

A Biggar spill in an aerial contest – another early area of strength for Ireland – saw CJ Stander pick up loose possession and fend Scott Williams before thundering over Leigh Halfpenny, forcing the Welsh to concede a penalty Ireland put into the left corner.

But a recent trend of missing five-metre opportunities continued as Alun Wyn Jones stole Rory Best’s throw from Jamie Heaslip in the air, a huge moment for the Welsh.

Sexton kicked one of his bombs dead soon after, and then suffered a blow to the head as he defended from the resulting scrum – meaning a HIA and the entry of Paddy Jackson into the game.

Wales went straight into the Ulsterman’s channel with the very next lineout attack, Jackson rushing up ahead of O’Brien on his inside and Henshaw on his outside, opening space for Scott Williams to burst through just inside the Irish half and offload to Webb.

The scrum-half threw a beautiful long pass to Halfpenny, who gave North time on the ball wide on the right. The imposing wing, chastened by the criticism of his own coaching staff, showed his muscular quality to step back inside Keith Earls and carry Simon Zebo over the tryline with him.

George North scores their first try despite Simon Zebo Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Halfpenny’s conversion attempt was off target, before Ireland had another period of pressure in the Wales 22 that possibly should have resulted in a try.

The Welsh collapsed a promising Irish maul, then Justin Tipuric failed to release after his tackle on Stander, but referee Wayne Barnes felt a penalty was enough punishment. Jackson slotted the shot at goal for a 6-5 Ireland lead, with Sexton then returning.

Next up was the injury scare for scrum-half Murray that would ultimately result in his departure, as he twice stayed down with an arm issue after big collisions with North. The Munster man battled through the clear pain and played on.

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A poor knock-on from Tadhg Furlong gave Wales a final attacking platform with a scrum outside the Irish 22, Liam Williams taking them into the green zone with a surge from the set-piece.

With advantage playing for Ireland failing to roll away, Webb sent a gorgeous kick pass wide left to Williams, who offloaded inside to Halfpenny, who in turn found Davies.

Rob Kearney with Justin Tipuric and Ken Owens Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Sexton grounded the Welsh outside centre, but failed to roll away and was binned by Barnes for “killing the ball,” meaning Ireland finished the half with 14 men and 8-6 behind after Halfpenny’s successful shot at goal.

Ireland continued to suffer in the absence of Sexton following the break, with O’Brien’s pass going to deck, allowing Wales to force the clearly-injured Murray into touch five metres out and following a clever Webb kick in behind.

Wales took their close-range chance, firing up their maul and then bouncing back down the blindside with Webb feeding North in a simple two-on-one for his second try, converted impressively by Halfpenny for a 15-6 lead.

Murray finally retired as Sexton returned from the bin, but any fears over Kieran Marmion were quickly extinguished as he first tackled Ross Moriarty into touch at the end of a multi-phase Welsh attack in the Ireland 22 and then added notable pace to Ireland’s attack.

Donnacha Ryan broke through North’s tackle wide on the left and into the Welsh 22, the home side eventually conceding a penalty that Ireland sent into the right corner.

Again, the Welsh dealt with the maul  play – legally this time – but Ireland won a penalty under the sticks when Barnes adjudged Biggar to have tackled Ringrose high. Sexton knocked over the three points to draw his side to within six.

George North celebrates scoring their second try with Rhys Webb Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Biggar hit the left post with a drop goal attempt heading into the final quarter, a warning that prompted Schmidt to begin to use his replacements – Cian Healy and Iain Henderson trundling on.

The Ulsterman soon had a turnover to his name and Ireland began to apply more pressure on Wales with their kicking game, very nearly resulting in a try-scoring chance after a half block down, only for Furlong to knock-on the ricocheting ball.

Ireland’s clever kicking tactics continued and an angled grubber from Henshaw in the 68th minute allowed Zebo to force Halfpenny over the touchline and provide Schmidt’s men with another five metre lineout.

Again, they failed to convert. After the forwards had eked out four metres of gains, Henshaw hurtled forward in a bid to add momentum but joined the maul ahead of the ball and Barnes correctly penalised him, allowing the Welsh to lift the siege.

The kick focus continued from Ireland, relentlessly, with Zebo gathering a cross-field effort from Sexton, before Liam Williams did enough to deny Earls wide on the right, the ball bouncing out for a Wales lineout.

But Furlong and Ryan burst through to carry replacement scrum-half Gareth Davies over the Welsh tryline from the set-piece, providing Ireland with a superb opportunity – a scrum five metres out, close to the right-hand touchline with six minutes left.

Another chance, another miss – this time Ringrose’s inside pass to Earls was knocked-on and the error was compounded into a penalty as Henshaw regathered and was penalised for offside.

That was it for Ireland and their title hopes, with Roberts punishing the Irish further in the closing minutes after a Taulupe Faletau block down, allowing Halfpenny to add the final nail in the coffin.

Wales scorers:

Tries: George North [2], Jamie Roberts

Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny [2 from 3]

Penalties: Leigh Halfpenny [1 from 1]

Ireland scorers:

Penalties: Johnny Sexton [2 from 2], Paddy Jackson [1 from 1]

WALES: Leigh Halfpenny; George North, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams (Jamie Roberts ’67), Liam Williams; Dan Biggar (Sam Davies ’79), Rhys Webb (Gareth Davies ’67); Rob Evans (Nicky Smith ’67), Ken Owens (Scott Baldwin ’72), Tomas Francis (Samson Lee ’70); Jake Ball (Luke Charteris ’63), Alun Wyn Jones (captain); Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty (Taulupe Faletau ’67).

IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Tommy Bowe ’79); Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Johnny Sexton (HIA – Paddy Jackson ’19 to ’27) (yellow card ’39 to ’49), Conor Murray (Kieran Marmion ’46); Jack McGrath (Cian Healy ’59), Rory Best (captain) (Niall Scannell ’79), Tadhg Furlong (John Ryan ’79); Donnacha Ryan, Devin Toner (Iain Henderson ’63); CJ Stander (Peter O’Mahony ’63), Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].

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Murray Kinsella

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