Ireland added Wales to their list of Croke Park scalps as winger Keith Earls (2) and scrum half Tomas O’Leary touched down in a 27-12 win, with the result keeping Declan Kidney’s men in the race for the RBS 6 Nations title.
RBS 6 NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Saturday, March 13
IRELAND 27 WALES 12, Croke Park
Scorers: Ireland: Tries: Keith Earls 2, Tomas O’Leary; Pens: Jonathan Sexton 3; Drop: Jonathan Sexton
Wales: Pens: Stephen Jones 4
Ireland celebrated captain Brian O’Driscoll’s century of caps by cruising to a victory which leaves them one win away from claiming their fifth Triple Crown in seven seasons.
The 15-point triumph, underpinned by Keith Earls’ try double and one from RBS man-of-the-match Tomas O’Leary, also kept alive an outside chance of a successful RBS 6 Nations title defence.
Out-half Jonathan Sexton kicked three penalties and a late drop goal which sealed the result, while his opposite number Stephen Jones booted four penalties for a disappointing Welsh side.
Speaking after becoming only the 13th player in world rugby to win 100 national caps, O’Driscoll said: “That was a different feeling, probably more emotional than I thought it would be.
“It was a fantastic feeling and it’s a massive, massive honour to have played for my country 100 times. The reception on the way out was an extra on winning the game.”
Ireland did suffer some setbacks along the way, with O’Driscoll’s centre partner Gordon D’Arcy forced off with an injury midway through the opening half.
Head coach Declan Kidney said: “Gordon took a blow above his knee but the structure of the knee is fine. We think it’s just a heavy dead leg.
“He’s already had treatment and 48 hours can make a huge difference with this type of injury. We’ll know more on Monday.”
Kidney’s men repeated England’s feat last month by scoring two tries while Wales had a player in the sin-bin.
At Twickenham it was lock Alun Wyn Jones who cost his team dear, and this time full-back Lee Byrne’s ruck infringement and subsequent yellow card opened the door for an Irish side that needed no second invitation.
Wales now find themselves in the wooden spoon mix alongside Scotland and Italy heading into next weekend’s final round of fixtures following three defeats from four starts.
Ireland though, will clinch the Triple Crown if they beat Scotland at Croke Park next Saturday (kick-off 5pm), and that would have been O’Driscoll’s main objective, not the adulation reserved for his 100th cap.
Ireland were unchanged from the side that beat England at Twickenham last time out, with the addition of Rob Kearney to the replacements bench the only alteration to the matchday squad.
Wales lost skipper Ryan Jones to a calf injury, so Gareth Delve deputised at number 8 and experienced flanker Martyn Williams took on the captaincy duties.
It was Williams’ 95th cap, breaking Colin Charvis’ appearance record for a Wales forward, while hooker Matthew Rees made his first start of the Championship and lock Luke Charteris gained a recall alongside second row partner Bradley Davies.
O’Driscoll – the second Irish player to reach 100 caps after his team-mate John Hayes – inevitably received a rapturous reception as he led Ireland out.
But his team struggled to make early headway, despite flanker David Wallace and lock Paul O’Connell featuring as prominent ball carriers.
Sexton missed a long range penalty chance and there was more composure about Wales as Jones booted them into a 10th minute lead before failing to find the target from further out.
The sparring continued during a muted opening quarter, although Ireland offered a flash of their attacking prowess when Bowe glided through a midfield gap.
And when Byrne was sin-binned for killing the ball just a minute after a second Sexton penalty, the men in green immediately made their temporary numerical advantage count.
The home side saw the injured D’Arcy helped off but Earls, who slotted in at centre with Rob Kearney replacing D’Arcy, struck for a well-worked try.
A slick O’Driscoll pass gave him all the room he needed to manoeuvre himself outside Charteris’ despairing lunge for a score that settled Irish nerves.
Although Sexton missed the conversion, Ireland were rapidly back on the attack, and with Byrne still watching from the sidelines, they struck another telling blow.
This time it was O’Connell who emerged with possession and he sent O’Leary sprinting unopposed through a disorganised Welsh defence and over in the left corner.
The visitors’ worst fears had been realised through another poor first half performance, their fifth in succession, including this season’s autumn Test series finale against Australia.
A second Jones penalty halted Ireland’s scoring blitz, but Wales had once again given themselves a mountain to climb at 16-6 down.
It was a depressing scenario for their suffering supporters, although there was immediate hope when Wales started the second period by camping inside Ireland’s 22.
Wales opted to use their scrum as an attacking weapon as they exerted pressure, yet Ireland, with their defence and lineout again two key features, thwarted Welsh ambitions by clearing the danger.
The hosts then stormed upfield while O’Driscoll received treatment following a heavy collision.
Sexton’s third successful penalty, awarded after Byrne threw the ball away, stretched Ireland’s advantage to 13 points, before Earls’ second try finished Wales off.
After a botched attempt to put Bowe through a gap off a lineout, O’Driscoll and O’Leary retrieved the situation and the latter scooped a lovely pass out for the electric Earls to dart over in the left corner, with Leigh Halfpenny and Shane Williams unable to prevent him from scoring.
Wales boss Warren Gatland looked to his bench for some inspiration, but it made little difference to the overall picture.
Ireland, with O’Leary, Earls, Rory Best and Wallace in a rich vein of form, closed out another solid afternoon’s work through an effortless Sexton drop goal, and Connacht hooker Sean Cronin also got on for the closing minutes to make his RBS 6 Nations debut.
The victory was Ireland’s fourth in their last five meetings with Wales, who became the seventh team to lose to Ireland at Croke Park since 2007 – England, Italy, Scotland, Argentina, France and South Africa being the other six.
TIME LINE: 4 minutes – Ireland penalty: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 0-0; 10 mins – Wales penalty: Stephen Jones – 0-3; 14 mins – Wales penalty: missed by Stephen Jones – 0-3; 18 mins – Ireland penalty: Jonathan Sexton – 3-3; 24 mins – Ireland penalty: Jonathan Sexton – 6-3; 25 mins – Wales sin-binning: Lee Byrne (ruck infringement); 27 mins – Ireland try: Keith Earls – 11-3; conversion: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 11-3; 31 mins – Ireland try: Tomas O’Leary – 16-3; conversion: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 16-3; 38 mins – Wales penalty: Stephen Jones – 16-6; Half-time – Ireland 16 Wales 6; 52 mins – Ireland penalty: Jonathan Sexton – 19-6; 55 mins – Wales penalty: Stephen Jones – 19-9; 60 mins – Ireland try: Keith Earls – 24-9; conversion: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 24-9; 64 mins – Wales penalty: Stephen Jones – 24-12; 77 mins – Ireland drop goal: Jonathan Sexton – 27-12; Full-time – Ireland 27 Wales 12
IRELAND: Geordan Murphy; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Gordon D’Arcy, Keith Earls; Jonathan Sexton, Tomas O’Leary; Cian Healy, Rory Best, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements used: Rob Kearney for D’Arcy (23 mins, inj), Tony Buckley for Hayes (75), Ronan O’Gara for Earls (78), Shane Jennings for Ferris, Leo Cullen for O’Connell, Eoin Reddan for O’Leary, Sean Cronin for Best (all 79).
WALES: Lee Byrne; Leigh Halfpenny, James Hook, Jamie Roberts, Shane Williams; Stephen Jones, Richie Rees; Paul James, Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Bradley Davies, Luke Charteris, Jonathan Thomas, Martyn Williams (capt), Gareth Delve.
Replacements used: Huw Bennett for M Rees (57 mins), Ian Gough for Davies (59, inj), Dwayne Peel for R Rees (62), Andrew Bishop for Byrne (64), Sam Warburton for M Williams (67), Rhys Gill for James (78). Not used: Tom Shanklin.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)