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Ireland battle in Cardiff defeat but fail to overcome early O'Mahony red card

Andy Farrell’s men racked up a big error count in the second half as they came up short.

Wales 21

Ireland 16

WHEN THE REPLAYS confirmed direct contact from Peter O’Mahony’s elbow to the head of Wales prop Tomas Francis, every Ireland fan’s heart would have dropped.

14 minutes in, Ireland down to 14 men.

george-north-scores-his-sides-opening-try George North scores for Wales. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

The response was stirring and Andy Farrell’s side somehow managed to push themselves into a half-time lead. There was brief belief but what followed after the break seemed to confirm those worst fears of Ireland being in a no-win position.

And then, there was almost a remarkable fightback in the dying minutes but that came to an agonising conclusion as replacement out-half Billy Burns had a chance to kick a penalty into the left corner but instead sent the ball dead with the final act of the game. 

Farrell’s men are off to a losing start in the 2021 Six Nations and though they should take heart from staying in the fight in Cardiff, Ireland now must rally themselves as the ever-improving France visit Dublin next Sunday. 

Ireland must bottle the spirit and flow of their second-quarter performance, when they rebounded from the red card to lead 13-6 at the break. They looked confident at that point but emerged from the half-time interval in seemingly more fragile condition.

Wales’ extra body meant Ireland were always likely to be overhauled by a home team in dire need of victory, but the frustration for Farrell and co. is that so many of their most damaging mistakes seemed avoidable. Kicking out of the full, kicking too long, missing touch, soft penalties, forced offloads – the error count rose in the second half.

Wales produced tries through George North and Louis Rees-Zammit to finally take control of the game heading into the final quarter and though Ireland finished within five points of the lead – notching a losing bonus point in the process – they couldn’t find the final reserves to pull off an unlikely win.

The likes of Tadhg Beirne, Hugo Keenan, Robbie Henshaw, and sub lock Iain Henderson – sent on after another first-half blow in losing James Ryan to injury – were superb in Ireland’s battling performance but ultimately, the red card so early in the game was decisive. Ireland had clearly focused on increased aggression around the breakdown after failings in that area last autumn, but O’Mahony’s loss of discipline proved to be costly. 

peter-omahony-leaves-the-field-after-being-red-carded Peter O'Mahony went sent off in the 14th minute. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Side entry into a defensive breakdown from O’Mahony allowed the Welsh to notch the first points on the five-minute mark as Leigh Halfpenny opened his account with a penalty. 

The Welsh soon lost the returning Dan Lydiate to an unfortunate knee injury but Ireland were down to 14 men in just the 14th minute as O’Mahony saw red, with referee Wayne Barnes happy to play on in real time only for TMO Tom Foley to call for a review of the incident.

With O’Mahony’s “chicken arm” clearout making direct contact with Francis’ head, it was an easy decision for Barnes.

Initially, the signs looked ominous as Wales started to attack with width, a high tackle from Sexton allowing Halfpenny to double the home side’s lead, but Farrell’s men showed grit to somehow lead by half-time – even after another big blow in losing Ryan to a head injury in the 24th minute.

The Welsh could also have been reduced to 14 players when centre Johnny Williams made a head-on-head tackle on Garry Ringrose, but it was overlooked even as Williams was forced off injured.

However, with the Irish attack looking the more fluid and Sexton helping them to dominate the territory, the visitors had narrowed the gap by the half-hour mark as the captain slotted a penalty after Josh Navidi – on for Lydiate – was pinged at the breakdown.

Sexton soon levelled the game when Wales centre North went off his feet looking for a breakdown steal and then Ireland managed to conjure a try to move in front. 

wayne-barnes-signals-a-try Tadhg Beirne finished Ireland's try before half time. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

It stemmed from their third lineout steal of the afternoon and centred around a stunning run back against the grain by Henshaw after he accepted a switch pass from Sexton outside the Wales 22.

Henshaw swung back underneath the ruck and then dynamically broke through Justin Tipuric’s tackle attempt with some sharp footwork before finding Josh van der Flier on his shoulder with an offload. Van der Flier was cut down a couple of metres short of the tryline and had the composure not to stretch out looking to score himself, risking a knock-on. Instead, Ireland recycled rapidly thanks to Cian Healy’s brilliant clearout on Ken Owens and Beirne was able to pick and dive over.

Sexton converted for 13-6 and Ireland finished the half in stirring fashion as Henderson and Ringrose won breakdown turnover penalties.

Their start to the second half was far shakier, however, as the error count started to rise with Sexton kicking out on the full, Conor Murray misjudging a box kick, Rob Herring making a high tackle, and then Ringrose forcing a loose offload near the Ireland 22 that led to a Welsh try.

They countered gleefully from the spilled ball and Navidi skillfully offloaded one-handed to North, who had more than enough pace to get outside and beyond Henderson, then finish through Beirne’s despairing tackle. 

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Halfpenny missed with his kickable conversion attempt from the right of the posts, so Ireland retained the lead at 13-11.

The away team continued to rack up the mistakes and there was a major one from Keith Earls in the 57th minute as the experienced wing kicked the ball out on the full just after Henderson had stolen another lineout, batting the ball back into the Irish 22.

johnny-sexton-gets-treatment-from-dr-ciaran-cosgrave-and-physio-keith-fox Johnny Sexton was forced off with a head injury. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

It handed Wales a prime attacking platform 10 metres out and after they won a maul penalty, they went back into the left corner, then used penalty advantage for a high tackle by Murray to skillfully swing the ball wide to the right, lovely hands from North and Halfpenny beating Irish edge defenders James Lowe and Hugo Keenan, and giving 20-year-old wing Louis Rees-Zammit space to finish score in the corner.

The Gloucester man had to show off his finishing skills to dive as replacement Tadhg Furlong did his best to deny him, but Rees-Zammit’s score was confirmed by the TMO.

Halfpenny converted to leave the Welsh 18-13 ahead as the game entered the final quarter and he was able to extend that lead to eight points with 15 minutes remaining as Beirne was harshly penalised for playing a ball that appeared to be well out of the ruck.

Ireland lost captain Sexton to a head injury after he was unfortunate to take a blow from the knee of opposing skipper Alun Wyn Jones, but his replacement Billy Burns – who had earlier come on as a temporary head injury sub for Henshaw – was able to reduce the deficit with eight minutes to go. 

Burns’ penalty had Ireland back to 21-16 as they searched for their final chance to turn the encounter around, but the Ulster man then cross-kicked out on the full in a promising position in the Welsh half.

There was one final chance for Ireland after a deliberate knock-on but they had to attack from deep and Ringrose cut through to put Welsh hearts in mouths, allowing Ireland to win a penalty. 

But Burns, looking to eke every last inch from it, kicked the ball dead when he had a chance to put the ball into the left corner. A miserable way to end a miserable day in Cardiff.

jordan-larmour-tadhg-beirne-garry-ringrose-and-robbie-henshaw-dejected Ireland came up short in Cardiff. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Wales scorers:

Tries: George North, Louis Rees-Zammit

Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny [1 from 2]

Penalties: Leigh Halfpenny [3 from 3]

Ireland scorers:

Tries: Tadhg Beirne

Conversions: Johnny Sexton [1 from 1]

Penalties: Johnny Sexton [2 from 2], Billy Burns [1 from 1]

Ireland scorers:

WALES: Leigh Halfpenny; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Johnny Williams (Nick Tompkins ’24), Hallam Amos (Callum Sheedy ’67); Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams (Gareth Davies ‘HT); Wyn Jones (Rhodri Jones), Ken Owens (Elliot Dee), Tomas Francis (Leon Brown); Adam Beard (Will Rowlands ’67), Alun Wyn Jones (captain); Dan Lydiate (Josh Navidi ’13), Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls (Jordan Larmour ’60), Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw (HIA – Billy Burns ’54 to ’64), James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (captain) (Billy Burns ’70), Conor Murray (Jamison-Gibson Park ’72); Cian Healy (Dave Kilcoyne ’52), Rob Herring (Ronan Kelleher ’72), Andrew Porter (Tadhg Furlong ’54), Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan (Iain Henderson ’24); Peter O’Mahony [red card '14], Josh Van Der Flier, CJ Stander (Will Connors).

Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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