A contest pockmarked by penalties and a lack of composure will have caused Ireland’s group rivals England few concerns. Ireland again showed an inability to react to the unexpected and were wasteful in possession while Wales, who slumped to a sixth successive defeat, showed spirit but still lacked an identity.
It was a mess of a game, blighted by 31 penalties. Wales at least recovered from an anonymous opening 40 minutes when they did little other than tackle, but the problems mount for their head coach, Wayne Pivac, for whom the old is dying but the new is still to be born.
Ireland had to make two changes on the day when the full-back Jacob Stockdale succumbed to a calf strain and the second-row Iain Henderson to illness. They then lost their captain, Jonathan Sexton, who tweaked his hamstring 28 minutes into a fierce, frenzied contest in which he had been one of the few to see clearly.
Ireland were 13-3 ahead when he went off having dominated the set pieces. Wales were showing more fight than they had against Scotland at the end of the Six Nations, Alun Wyn Jones sparring with Peter O’Mahony in the opening minutes before Liam Williams goaded a reaction out of James Lowe, but skill did not match their resolve.
Wales sacked their defence coach Byron Hayward at the start of the week. There was a difference in their line speed, but by the end of the first half they were being picked up for offside and struggled to keep Ireland’s main ball-carrier behind the gainline.
Lowe, the New Zealander who was making his international debut, made an immediate impact with a powerful run and he roamed the field looking for the ball as Ireland looked to play at a pace that made Wales uncomfortable. A problem was a referee who reacted to the early skirmishes by keeping his whistle close to his mouth and giving neither side latitude.
There were 11 penalties in the first 20 minutes and such was the stop-start nature of the match that Amazon will have been relieved it did not have the broadcasting rights. It allowed Wales to cling on despite not having a foothold and there would have been relief that they trailed only 16-6 at the break.
Ireland’s try, scored by Henderson’s replacement, Quinn Roux, followed a scrum and a series of drives, but they could have had four more. Lowe had space when Sexton’s looping run from a lineout was followed by a poor pass, Andrew Conway was twice bundled into touch by Josh Adams, and Andrew Porter blew rugby’s equivalent of an open goal when Wales lost their fourth throw-in of the half and the ball fell loose over their line.
An early Wales attack foundered when Owen Watkin’s pass went to ground and the few positions they gained from penalties after that were squandered by a suspect lineout. Their scrum was no more efficient and at the end of the first half, when they had a set piece five metres from their line, they replaced the prop Rhys Carre with Wyn Jones, a stronger scrummager.
The first-half statistics were sobering for Wales: their share of possession was 23% and territory only 14%. They covered only 10 mergers with the ball in hand compared to 184, and they had attempted 110 tackles to Ireland’s 19. There was an immediate reaction at the start of the second half when a strong counter-ruck earned them a penalty and rare time in Ireland’s 22, but another scrum penalty cost them position.
Leigh Halfpenny kicked his third penalty having just missed from halfway after Wales’s breakdown pressure had twice forced Hugo Keenan to hold on, but Ireland squandered another opportunity when Cian Healy was held up over the line by Taulupe Faletau.
Billy Burns had replaced Sexton and his second penalty restored Ireland’s 10-point lead, but they were slow to react to Wales’s sudden relish at the breakdown and found themselves on the back foot. The visitors profited from quick possession, but apart from a few thrusts by Adams, had no penetration and for all the shift in attitude, they were distinctly ordinary.
Burns was injured 12 minutes from the end and was replaced by the scrum-half Conor Murray, whose two penalties took Ireland to victory before Lowe sealed his impressive debut with a try in the final minute, but they will not get away with being as wasteful at Twickenham next weekend.