Captain Niamh Briggs played a starring role as the Ireland Women maintained their Six Nations title challenge with a 20-0 win away to Wales this afternoon.
Tom Tierney's side took the lead in the 27th minute, Paula Fitzpatrick burrowing over from close range with Briggs converting. 7-0 is how it stayed for half-time.
Two wind-backed penalties from Briggs, coupled with some superb Irish defending, kept the visitors on course and a late opportunist try from winger Alison Miller wrapped up the result.
The victory in Swansea means the girls in green are level on six points with defending champions France at the top of the table. France, who suffered a surprise defeat to Italy, have a superior scoring difference of +63 compared to Ireland's +43, but the French have to travel to Twickenham to take on England next Saturday and Tierney's charges are away to bottom side Scotland the following day.
The Scots have conceded an average of 38.5 points per game so far in the tournament so if France win, Ireland will hope to rack up a big score in Cumbernauld in order to pip them to the title. A final win of any kind would give the Irish their second Triple Crown in three years.
Facing into the wind at St. Helen's, Ireland were camped in their own half during cagey opening, with strong Welsh defence cutting down the space. But good carries from Sophie Spence and Briggs made yardage along with a couple of clearing penalties from full-back Briggs.
A prolonged spell of Irish attacking off the back of two lineout mauls saw Jenny Murphy, Fitzpatrick and Hannah Tyrrell carry with great intent, with the latter profiting from an increasing amount of width from Ireland.
The girls in green continued to take the game to Wales, Briggs releasing Miller for a powerful run from deep and scrum half Larissa Muldoon, playing against some of her Skewen club-mates, catching the eye in both attack and defence.
Gemma Rowland was pinged for not rolling away and the Irish pack chipped away following an initial lineout maul, showing impressive composure and patience through a series of pick and goes before flanker Fitzpatrick reached over to score by the left hand post.
Briggs comfortably converted, but Wales enjoyed an encouraging finish to the first half with dangerous winger Laurie Harries getting into the game and their pack pressing from a couple of penalties just five metres out.
However, Ireland, with hooker Gillian Bourke winning her 50th cap, were unyielding. The excellent Claire Molloy produced a vital turnover at a ruck and Briggs, having made some uncharacteristic errors, redeemed herself with a penalty-winning poach in the dying minutes.
The injury-enforced departure of number 8 Heather O'Brien before the break saw lock Orla Fitzsimons brought on with try scorer Fitzpatrick moving to the base of the scrum and Spence going to flanker.
Ireland responded to a bright Welsh start on the resumption with a drilled Briggs kick downfield and perfect follow-up tackle from Tyrrell, before tighthead Ailis Egan rampaged forward from a free-kick in the 22.
Another ruck penalty won by Molloy saw Briggs go for goal from the left, just outside the 22, and her accurate strike widened the margin to 10 points. Further pressure from a lengthy Briggs kick saw Dyddgu Hywel charged down by Tyrrell who was unfortunate that the loose ball beat her over the end-line.
Briggs increased her influence with the boot and also with ball in hand, countering brilliantly from a Welsh chip as she weaved her way up towards the 22. The Waterford woman then curled a pinpoint penalty inside the right hand post for 13-0.
There were errors from both sides in an absorbing final quarter as the young Welsh side continued to knock on the door, aided by two smashing breaks from captain Rachel Taylor and the elusive Elen Evans.
Ireland's defence is statistically the best in the 2015 Championship with only 23 points conceded in four games, and they exhibited that strength again with an important cover tackle from Briggs and a well-executed choke tackle from the forwards.
The tireless Molloy was a nuisance for Wales at the breakdown and a well-won turnover by replacement prop Fiona Hayes, added to by a meaty clearance from Briggs, signalled the end of a dominant Welsh spell.
Then, in the final minutes, Miller made her own luck when she gobbled up an Elinor Snowsill cross-field kick, charged over halfway and made it over in the left corner. Briggs' fine conversion from wide out completed the scoring at St. Helen's.
TIME LINE: 27 minutes – Ireland try: Paula Fitzpatrick – 0-5; conversion: Niamh Briggs – 0-7; Half-time – Wales 0 Ireland 7; 48 mins – Ireland penalty: Niamh Briggs – 0-10; 61 mins – Ireland penalty: Niamh Briggs – 0-13; 80 mins – Ireland try: Alison Miller – 0-18; conversion: Niamh Briggs – 0-20; Full-time – Wales 0 Ireland 20
Referee: Claire Hodnett (England)