RYAN VREDE watched Wales deliver an excellent all-round performance to secure their passage to the semi-finals with a 22-10 victory over Ireland.
The Welsh were outnumbered in the stands of the Wellington Regional Stadium, but their charges gave their traveling support much to cheer by progressing to the last four for only the second time in their history. They finished clinically in scoring three tries against the side ranked as the best defensive unit in the tournament coming into this Test, but it would be remiss not to note their own defensive excellence.
They were white-hot out of the gates, scoring in the second minute in a move that featured powerful phase play that punched up left, snapped right and eventually swung out to Shane Williams on the touchline. You thought it was a statement of intent, instead they spent much of the remainder of the half repelling Ireland.
They did so powerfully, accurately and intelligently, building the defensive effort on an immense gainline fight that allowed them to flood the ruck and stifle Ireland’s attacking flow. Special mention must be made of Sam Warburton in this regard. His coach Warren Gatland said prior to the tournament that he is among the best openside flankers in the game and his performance tonight lent further credence to that assertion. He was ably assisted by his team-mates, who tackled relentlessly and desperately at times, but with the spirit that told the story of their deep desire to progress.
Serviced with a slow recycle Ireland’s attack lacked a cutting edge, and their cause was further undermined by a series of poorly executed tactical kicks from flyhalf Ronan O’Gara. However, their failings undoubtedly had its root in their collective incompetence in Wales’ 22m. Twice they opted for lineouts from kickable penalties, only to see the subsequent drive break down.
Ireland flanker Sean O’Brein was held up in goal and a minute later O’Gara grassed a pass with a numbers advantage on his outside. When Rob Kearney fielded a kick and broke from the halfway line you thought the deadlock would finally be broken. But Wales scrambled brilliantly, and were assisted by the fullback popping the ball into the grateful arms of Jamie Roberts. Ireland will reflect on that period with disappointment and will rightly point to it as being decisive to the outcome.
O’Gara finally got them on the board with a penalty, but Leigh Halfpenny soon re-established Wales’ seven point lead with a penalty kicked into the teeth of a wicked Wellington wind. Wales lead 10-3 at the break, but Ireland re-emerged from the tunnel with a purposeful swagger and had soon leveled the score when Keith Earls slid over in the corner and O’Gara landed a brilliant conversion. Game on.
The Test, so compelling, so engrossing up to that point, soared to even higher heights as Ireland twice turned over possession in their 22m. They were, however, helpless to deny Mike Phillips, who broke blind from a scrum and acrobatically touched down. Rhys Priestland missed the conversion, then struck the post with a penalty attempt and with 20 to play, Ireland were desperately trying to avoid being incinerated by the Dragons.
But Wales were irresistible, and when Priestland converted Jonathan Davies’ try to extend the lead to 12 points with 15 minutes to play, there was a distinct sense that Ireland would book straight through from Auckland airport home when they would have been hoping for a longer stay.
Ireland would mount a bold attempt at a rebuttal late in the piece, but Wales were always in control defensively. They’ve built steadily from their impressive performance against the Springboks and it will require a very good performance to beat them in a week’s time.