Wales 21 Ireland 16
IRELAND succumbed to a heartbreaking opening round Six Nations defeat to Wales despite a monumental effort for 67 minutes with only 14 men, following Peter O’Mahony’s first-half sending off.
Wales, with a 58-cap per-man average, were desperate to begin their Six Nations campaign on a positive note after a dreadful 2020 where they failed to register a single win over a top international side, and they did just enough to wear down Ireland in the second half.
Leigh Halfpenny opened the scoring with a simple fifth-minute penalty, after referee Wayne Barnes had penalised O’Mahony for coming in from the side when attempting a jackal 25 metres from his own posts.
The game’s defining moment arrived as early as the 13th minute when Ireland’s experienced blindside flanker Peter O’Mahony was given a straight red card by Barnes for a reckless clear out on Tomas Francis when he dropped his shoulder into the head of the prone tight head prop.
In those minutes immediately after the sending off Ireland looked shell-shocked at the early loss of the talismanic Munster captain and Wales capitalised by adding a further three points from the boot of Halfpenny in the 19th minute, after Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton was guilty of a high tackle in midfield.
Ireland recovered quickly and controlled both territory and possession for the next ten minutes, as they tried to play their way back into the tie by going through the phases, and Sexton kicked an excellent penalty in the 28th minute from 40m to get Ireland on the scoreboard.
The Irish out-half repeated the trick in the 35th minute to level affairs and suddenly the whole Irish team began to believe.
He made an arcing run around the Welsh rearguard before bursting straight through Justin Tipuric before popping to Josh van der Flier, and even though the Leinster openside was stopped just short, Tadhg Beirne was able to pick and dive over the Welsh tryline.
In one deft movement, he gave Ireland an unlikely 6-13 half time lead.
Ireland looked in complete control until Garry Ringrose coughed up possession cheaply in midfield and from the resultant counter-attack Josh Navidi was able to offload brilliantly to centre George North, who was able to utilise his finishing prowess to cross over for a much-needed try for Wales in the 49th minute. Halfpenny kicked wide with his attempted conversion from the right touchline, to ensure Ireland still led by two.
Ten minutes later Wales capitalised on a penalty concession by Keith Earls, as he tackled Halfpenny in the air, and from the resultant possession, Wales worked a quality score in the right corner by the 20-year-old debutant Louis Rees-Zammit, with Halfpenny this time able to add the extras, as Wales looked to take control.
Ireland needed a bit of luck at this juncture, as the game looked to be slipping away from them, and when Beirne was harshly penalised in the 64th minute right in front of his posts it made Ireland’s task much more difficult, as Halfpenny was able to slot the three-pointer to make it a two-score game.
Ireland lost their captain Jonathan Sexton to a head injury but gave themselves a chance with a 72nd-minute penalty from his replacement Billy Burns.
Ireland had one last chance to win the game but Burns kicked the ball dead when attempting to set up a five-metre attacking lineout for Ireland, and Wales were let out of jail.
Halfpenny (3 pens, 1 con), North, Rees-Zammit (1 try each).
Sexton (2 pens, 1 con), Burns (1 pen), Beirne (1 try).
Halfpenny; Rees-Zammit, North, J. Williams, Amos; Biggar, T. Williams; Jones, Owens, Francis; Beard, Wyn Jones (c); Lydiate, Tipuric, Faletau.
Navidi for Lydiate (12), Tompkins for J. Williams (24), Davies for T. Williams (40), R. Jones, Brown, Rowlands and Sheedy for W. Jones, Francis, Beard and Amos (66).
Keenan, Earls, Ringrose, Henshaw, Lowe, Sexton (capt), Murray; Healy, Herring, Porter, Beirne, Ryan, O'Mahony, van der Flier, Stander.
Henderson for Ryan (24), Kilcoyne for Healy (50), Burns and Furlong for Henshaw and Porter (54), Connors for van der Flier (60), Larmour for Earls (61), Henshaw for Burns (64), Burns for Sexton (70), Kelleher and Gibson-Park for Herring and Murray (72).
Wayne Barnes (England).