Josh van der Flier’s try rubber-stamped an impressive 34-10 win for Ireland against Wales in the opening game of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations.
Much of the build-up had focussed on Warren Gatland’s return as Wales head coach but Ireland put his side to the sword in an excellent first-half performance.
Andy Farrell’s team crossed the whitewash through Caelan Doris, James Ryan and James Lowe during an impressive first 40 minutes.
Liam Williams scored within two minutes of the restart, and Wales were much better in the second half, but 2022 World Rugby Player of the Year Van der Flier made sure of the result in the closing stages.
FARRELL’S SIDE ON FIRE EARLY ON
The hosts were under pressure from the start. Ireland kicked the ball into Wales’ 22, and Josh Adams struggled to get any distance on his clearance, handing the visitors an early lineout.
Farrell’s side turned to their drive, and when it stopped moving, they started a barrage of pick-and-goes that finished with Doris crossing the whitewash to give Ireland an early 7-0 lead.
And they were back on the Wales five-metre line again within minutes, winning a penalty just to the left of the posts.
Johnny Sexton decided to turn to his forwards rather than take the three points, and the gamble paid off.
After another set of phases, Ryan went over for Ireland’s second.
Rio Dyer nearly pulled a try back in the 12th minute, but Hugo Keenan won the foot race after the Wales winger kicked the ball over the try line.
The hosts did get on the scoresheet after Dan Biggar’s successful shot at goal shortly after the five-metre scrum.
However, Sexton restored Ireland’s 14-point lead within five minutes, kicking a penalty of his own from underneath the posts.
Gatland’s team grew into the game and were beginning to put some nice phases of play together when Lowe drove a dagger through the hearts of Wales fans with a superb interception that sent him through on the try line unchallenged.
Sexton kicked the conversion, and the hosts were 21 points down inside 22 minutes. Another Sexton penalty followed as Ireland twisted the knife.
IRELAND GET THE BETTER OF THE AERIAL BATTLE
No side retained possession from kicks more often than Wales in last year’s Guinness Six Nations, but Ireland were getting more joy with the boot in the first half.
Keenan beat Williams to a high ball to put the hosts under more pressure, but a brilliant chop tackle on the five-metre line from Justin Tipuric forced a crucial turnover.
That seemed to wake Wales up, as the hosts won a penalty for a high tackle to make a rare visit into Ireland’s 22.
A botched lineout routine forced Wales back into their half, and Ireland kicked the ball out of the play to head into half-time 27-3 ahead.
WALES BATTLE BACK
After the break, an excellent flat pass from Biggar nearly put Josh Adams through, and although he lost possession, play was pulled back for a penalty after a late tackle on the Wales fly half.
Gatland’s side kicked for the corner and took a quick lineout before starting an assault on Ireland’s defensive line.
And, after just a few phases, Wales had created the space to send Williams over the whitewash unchallenged.
The famous Principality Stadium crowd was beginning to come alive as Wales made it to the five-metre line again shortly after the restart, but the ball was held up over the try line, referee Karl Dickson called for a scrum, and Ireland cleared the ball.
Williams then made a world-class break after two brilliant steps off his left foot. He offloaded to Justin Tipuric, but the flanker put too much weight on his looping pass to Dyer, and Ireland regained possession.
ILL-DISCIPLINE COSTING IRELAND
Wales conceded nine penalties in the first half, but it was Ireland who had let their discipline slip after the break.
Play was pulled back for a late tackle on Williams by replacement Iain Henderson, as the hosts kept the pressure on the Ireland line. The visitors did make it into the opposition’s 22 as the game entered the final 30 minutes, but Rhys Carré won a penalty to relieve the pressure.
After a clearance upfield, Wales were on the attack again, winning another penalty in Ireland’s half and kicking for the corner, though it came to nothing in the end.
It felt like the game had slipped away from Wales, and Van der Flier made sure of the result with eight minutes remaining, touching down underneath the posts after more good work from Ireland’s forwards.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH
As previously mentioned, Wales were one of the best kicking sides in last year’s Guinness Six Nations.
But Keenan ensured that the hosts did not get a sniff when putting boot to ball.
He was rewarded with the player of the match award, more than deserved after neutralising one of Wales’ biggest threats.