Ireland Top Wales in Six Nations Opener: A Tale of Two Halves
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The 2013 Six Nations Championship opened with an absolute cracker at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff earlier this afternoon.
If this is a taste of things to come, then buckle up because this is going to be a great Six Nations.
The talk in the buildup was that any one of the top four sides had a chance to win, and today showed that is very much the case.
Ireland came flying out of the blocks, besting their Welsh opponents in all phases of the game. They tested the Welsh blitz defence early, looking to spread the ball wide to their flying wingers. A clean lineout was turned into a driving maul, and Ireland drove deep into Welsh territory. Mike Ross then got one over Gethin Jenkins in a scrum, and the ball was spread wide.
Rob Kearney came as a decoy, drawing Jonathan Davies for a split second, and gave Brian O'Driscoll a yard of space. Give O'Driscoll an inch and he will punish you, and punish he did. He drew in three defenders, took the tackle and gave a beautiful no-look pass for the flying Simon Zebo to race over the line.
With Ireland on top, the Welsh made repeated unforced errors when they did manage to get the ball in their hands.
Ireland's big ball carriers were crashing over the gain-line, giving Conor Murray quick balls at the base of the ruck. They came close to doubling their lead as Murray, Craig Gilroy and Cian Healy all got tackled short of the line before Andrew Coombs killed the ball, gifting Jonny Sexton an easy three points.
Again Wales tried to gain a foothold, but, again, a series of errors saw them on the back-foot. Dan Biggar took too much time with a clearing kick, giving Rory Best an easy block-down, and he raced into the Welsh half.
Best had the vision to spread the ball wide to Jamie Heaslip, who gave a bad pass to Zebo on the outside. Zebo, in a move reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane, flicked the ball into his hands with his heel at full speed. Never in my time have I seen anything like it, and pundits everywhere were purring at his brilliance.
Ireland recycled the ball and Cian Healy crashed over to give Ireland a 17-0 lead.
Once the clock struck 30, Wales began to find their feet, kicking a penalty to get on the scoreboard, but O'Driscoll was busy teaching his Welsh rival for the Lion's shirt a lesson. Twice Wales attacked and twice O'Driscoll forced turnovers, first on the deck and second with pressure in defence.
Wales enjoyed a great period of pressure in the closing 10 minutes of the half, but Rory Best got over the ball at a ruck for a timely steal. Instead of seeing out the half, Ireland marched down the field and kicked what would prove to be a very important three points.
At the half, Irish fans were talking massacre, Welsh fans were calling for Rob Howley's head and fans everywhere were catching their breath.
As soon as the game restarted, Ireland picked up where they left off, instigating a choke tackle in the Welsh 22 and from the resulting scrum, O'Driscoll almost put Kearney over in the corner. A few phases later, O'Driscoll joined the pack and crashed over from less than a yard.
The game would then turn on the two changes made by the respective coaches. Gordan D'Arcy, a defensive linchpin, limped off for Ireland and Justin Tipuric came on the speed up the Welsh ball.
Tipuric made a mockery of Howley's selection and immediately changed the game.
Wales were suddenly getting quick ball at the breakdown with Tipuric acting as the link between forwards and backs. Ireland were suddenly the team under pressure, and the referee pulled Jamie Heaslip aside to warn his team about the breakdown.
Wales tried to attack in close but met an Irish wall, a wall they would run into repeatedly as the game went on. Eventually the ball went wide and Alex Cuthbert raced into the line at an angle, targeting the cold Keith Earls, and crossed for a try.
Wales were firing and Ireland looked out on their feet.
Time after time, Welsh runners came flying into Irish territory and found space. But another moment of magic from O'Driscoll, slapping the ball out of Mike Phillips' hands, led to an Irish breakaway and a chance to catch their breath.
The last 25 minutes were some of the most intense I have ever seen.
Wales threw everything at the Irish defence, but time after time, they ran into a brick wall. Ireland simply wanted it more and were throwing themselves into contact, thwarting Welsh attacks. Twice Gilroy raced out of the line, smashing attackers and spoiling Welsh overlaps.
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A weaker team would've folded, but Ireland showed real resilience in meeting the Welsh Goliaths.
Ireland played 20 minutes of the second half with 14 men, as both Best and Murray were sent to the bin for killing ball, and Wales would eventually cross for two tries. But by then, stout Irish defence had eaten into the remaining time. The Irish defensive stats were incredible, with O'Brien alone having 20 and four other players well into double figures.
For their commitment in both attack and defence, Ireland were probably good for the win. but there are lingering worries.
This was a hugely physical game, and the defensive stand will have taken its toll on the Irish players. With England to come, one must wonder how much is left in the tank and who is carrying injuries.
The plus points are the manner O'Driscoll reacted to his demotion, the play of the rookies Zebo and Earls and the fortitude the team showed with their backs to wall. You can't win the Six Nations on the opening day but you can lose it, and Ireland are still in the mix.
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