Warren Gatland received the perfect Guinness Six Nations send-off as he became the first coach in Championship history to win three Grand Slams after Wales brilliantly beat Ireland in Cardiff.
Hadleigh Parkes scored the opening try after just 70 seconds and the relentless kicking of Gareth Anscombe then steadily took the game away from the visitors in what was also Joe Schmidt’s final Guinness Six Nations game as Ireland head coach.
Gatland will leave his post after the World Cup later this year and he does so having led Wales to Grand Slams in 2008, 2012 and now 2019 after completing the job that started with a memorable comeback win over France in Paris in Round One.
That was followed by victories away to Italy and Scotland, as well as beating England on home turf, and while a number of different Welsh stars have shone throughout the Championship, Anscombe stepped up when it mattered most in the wind and rain at Principality Stadium.
He created the tone-setting opening try and then metronomically booted 20 points from the tee as the hosts expertly controlled possession and territory, while gratefully taking the opportunities offered by a surprisingly untidy Irish display.
It all added up to an almost perfect performance as Wales deservedly became the first country in the Six Nations era to clinch four Grand Slams, emphatically ending Ireland’s own chance of winning the 2019 Guinness Six Nations title in the process.
A spine-tingling rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau rang around Principality Stadium before kick-off but surely even the sea of red fans couldn’t have dreamed of such a perfect start – a pinpoint Anscombe kick-off trapping Ireland deep, with the chasing George North pushing them out and immediately giving Wales an attacking platform.
Heading into the game, the Welsh had won the lowest percentage of lineouts of any team in the 2019 Championship but they secured this one and a couple of phases later, Anscombe’s clever dink over the top was caught by the onrushing Parkes to touch down with just 70 seconds on the clock – the extras making it 7-0.
And centre Parkes demonstrated his defensive value just minutes later when Johnny Sexton’s quick-thinking cross-field kick from a penalty in the Ireland 22 freed Jacob Stockdale down the left, with the winger looking certain to score until Parkes hared back and made the diving tackle from behind.
After a breathless start, Wales suffered a ninth-minute blow when North hobbled off to be replaced by Dan Biggar but Anscombe – switched to full-back following North’s departure – maintained kicking duties and dutifully made it 10-0 by slotting a tricky long-range penalty from the right touchline after Sexton was pinged at the breakdown.
Midway through the first half, Ireland finally earned their first real attacking platform as they eschewed a kickable penalty to boot to the corner but Wales’ defence – so impressive throughout the 2019 Guinness Six Nations – once again held firm, with Adam Beard securing a crucial turnover.
And after steadily turning defence into attack, Anscombe moved the score to 16-0 by half-time with two further three-pointers, as the otherwise impressive Tadhg Beirne was caught offside and Ireland were then deemed to have collapsed a scrum.
With a 16-point deficit at the interval – coincidentally the same gap Wales overcame in their 2019 Guinness Six Nations opener against France in Paris – the visitors needed a strong start to the second half but instead Cian Healy was penalised early on and the metronomic Anscombe made it 19-0.
CJ Stander was pinged for not rolling away in the tackle on 54 minutes and Anscombe stayed perfect from the tee as a 22-point margin saw Wales put one hand on the Guinness Six Nations trophy.
That became 25-0 ten minutes from time with, of course, another Anscombe three-pointer and the celebrations that will continue long into the Cardiff night could begin in earnest – even when Jordan Larmour ran in for a consolation try right on full-time that was converted by Jack Carty.
It would be inaccurate to say the game was decided after just 70 seconds but that early try set the tone for a dominant Welsh performance in a contest that Ireland simply failed to gain a foothold in.
The opening kick-off was perfectly executed to earn Wales an attacking lineout, skipper Alun Wyn Jones then secured Ken Owens’ throw and a few phases later the raucous home crowd were in dreamland.
Anscombe had the vision to spot an opportunity and the skill to execute a deft chip that Parkes gathered and dotted down to hand the hosts the momentum that they never surrendered.
Gareth Anscombe was superb and the fact he retained kicking duties even once Dan Biggar entered the game on ten minutes, shows how much faith Gatland has in him.
Having started, and impressed to create the Parkes try, at fly-half, he shifted to full-back when Biggar came on for the injured George North but didn’t miss a beat.
He helped quell any and every Irish attack, while also keeping the scoreboard ticking over with a series of penalties – no mean feat given the wet conditions in Cardiff.
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