George North helped spark a second-half blitz from Wales that saw them come from behind to defeat 14-man Ireland 21-16 in Cardiff.
Peter O’Mahony made unwanted history by becoming the first Irishman to be sent off in the Guinness Six Nations when he made contact with the head of Tomas Francis trying to clear out a ruck on 13 minutes, giving referee Wayne Barnes no option but to brandish a red card.
Yet Ireland responded positively to going down to 14 men with Tadhg Beirne crossing for a try that their first-half play deserved for a 13-6 half-time lead.
But North’s scintillating try ten minutes into the second half turned the tide back in Wales’s favour, with Louis Rees-Zammit then dotting down on his first Guinness Six Nations appearance to give the hosts a lead they never surrendered.
A Billy Burns penalty did set up a grandstand finish but Ireland couldn’t quite find the decisive score as the streak of Guinness Six Nations fixtures between Wales and Ireland without an away victory extended to eight.
After a frustrating 2020 in which they won just three of ten matches, Wayne Pivac will have been pleased to start 2021 on a more positive note and they head to BT Murrayfield in Round 2 for a fascinating encounter with a buoyant Scotland side.
Jones: Wales starting to turn a corner after Ireland victory
O’MAHONY SEES RED IN THE EARLY STAGES
A sixth-minute Leigh Halfpenny penalty gave Wales an early advantage in Cardiff but Ireland responded with a foray into Welsh territory featuring Hugo Keenan weaving his way through tacklers and some powerful carries from the pack.
Yet the hosts held firm and then on 13 minutes, a potentially match-defining moment saw O’Mahony sent off for making contact with the head of Wales prop Francis at the breakdown.
Wales immediately set about piling the pressure on their visitors – the ball being shifted from side to side, with centres North and Johnny Williams making probing runs – and extended their advantage to 6-0 through the boot of Halfpenny after Johnny Sexton was pinged for a high tackle.
Despite their man disadvantage, Ireland largely had the better of the game following that second Halfpenny penalty and their patience in attack was rewarded when Sexton slotted three-pointers on 28 and 35 minutes to level proceedings at 6-6.
And the 14 men deservedly took the lead just before half-time as Robbie Henshaw made a half-break through the Welsh defensive line, offloaded to Josh van der Flier who was stopped inches short before Beirne picked up and stretched out to dot down.
Sexton then nailed the conversion to ensure Ireland went into the break seven points to the good.
HOSTS RESPOND IN STYLE
However, Wales got exactly the start to the second half that they needed as they capitalised on a rare Irish error with North dummying his way through the defensive line, cutting inside a spun-around James Lowe and outpacing Beirne to stretch out for the try.
Halfpenny’s conversion attempt slipped just wide but Wales took momentum from the score and added a second try just before the hour mark.
Sustained pressure in the Irish 22 ended with quick hands shipping the ball to the right wing and Rees-Zammit showed his lightning acceleration to surge for the corner before acrobatically touching down to avoid going into touch.
This time, Halfpenny expertly added the extras and then tacked on a penalty with 15 minutes remaining to take the lead beyond a single score.
To their credit, Ireland’s 14 men refused to lie down and a spell of attacking pressure ended with Burns slotting a penalty to narrow the gap to 21-16 with eight minutes remaining after Sexton exited for a HIA.
However, a couple of handling errors cost Ireland a genuine shot at grabbing a late score that could have seen them snatch victory and their valiant last-gasp attempt to score from within their own half ended with Burns kicking a penalty dead when aiming for the corner.
Farrell: ‘Valiant’ Ireland showed unbelievable effort in Wales loss
PLAYER OF THE MATCH
The likes of North and Justin Tipuric shone for Wales, while Robbie Henshaw did likewise for Ireland but Wyn Jones was a force to be reckoned with and duly named Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match.
The Wales prop made a mammoth 44 metres on ten hard carries, broke a tackle and completed nine tackles himself.
He was also a menace at the breakdown and solid in the set-piece which helped lay the platform for victory.
North’s try on 49 minutes was crucial in turning the tide for Wales after they had headed into half-time trailing by seven points to their 14-man opponents.
So often Wales’s spark over the year, North – playing at centre rather than his traditional wing position – played that role again as his score instilled real belief in the hosts after an up-and-down 2020 that could have sapped confidence from the ranks.
His clever dummy created a small gap in the Irish defensive line and he surged through, before twisting Lowe around and outpacing Beirne to the line.
It didn’t put Wayne Pivac’s men ahead but brought them right back into the contest and they soon moved into a lead that they never surrendered.