Quite a few people thought Ireland would beat champions Wales. They were wrong. Ireland absolutely obliterated them. But even that is not quite right. What makes this win so impressive was the dexterity of it, the effortless command of fingers and angles, which made us almost not notice the physicality of which they have long been purveyors.
If 29-7 does not sound quite an obliteration, the truth is that 50 points would have not flattered the Irish. Four tries, though, three of them scored in the third quarter, represent a full house of points, so “job done”, that old catchphrase of champions, applies here regardless. If Ireland were not favourites for the title, they could not have done much more for their prospects than dismantle the champions like this. Wales are used to being underrated despite a record this century better than anyone’s, but they are without a host of points of reference. It showed. They looked lost by the end. They were not the only ones at the start.
This is a familiar Ireland team, all the more so given 11 of them play for the same province, but here they launched a new star from the west. Even connoisseurs of rugby outside Galway would be forgiven for needing to read up about Mack Hansen this week. The Aussie-born son of an Irish mother pitched up a few months ago to honour his new contract with Connacht, and here he became a fully fledged Ireland international. A minute in, he was away down the left as if he had played with this crack outfit for years.
Ireland could not quite finish his chip and chase, but they scored from the line-out anyway. The try was scored by Bundee Aki, who finished after a perfect cut-out pass by, well, this bloke Hansen again, but the blur of hands and bristling muscles in the build-up were multiple. Ireland have long favoured what is known as the Sexton loop, Johnny loving the licence to lurk behind the front line and pick his moment, but now any number of players are given licence to spring each other through gaps.
Tadhg Furlong, for example, is a tighthead prop. At one point he put Sexton through a gap with the deftness of a man half his size. It is difficult to overstate the absurdity of the mere idea of a tighthead doing things like that last century. Do not go thinking he was shirking his other duties either. The man scrummaged and bulldozed as much as ever. But let us not pick on Furlong. Ireland, all of them, were a blur of moving parts. If Josh Adams had hoped for a loosener for his first match in that most demanding of roles in the outside centre, he was not to be obliged.
Wales, though, rolled with the punches, their light but oh-so-hard back row to the fore, just enough to spike Ireland’s guns at the point of execution on more than a few occasions. Such is Wales’s list of absentees, damage limitation was a respectable ambition against Ireland in this mood. Sexton scuffed his first two penalties at goal but landed a third. Rarely has a fly-half booted the ball off for half-time with more enthusiasm than Dan Biggar did. A 10-0 deficit felt a steal. That impression only deepened after the break. A good team makes their dominance tell where it counts. Turns out Ireland are a good team. Again, they came out of the blocks at high speed; again they scored early, but this time thrice. The first two were finished by Andrew Conway.
His finish of the first was remarkable, an outstretched arm somehow reaching the line, the second formulaic, but the approach play to both was considered and bewitching, featuring virtually everyone. There was Furlong as the pivot, twice in the build-up to Conway’s second. Conway might have had a third-quarter hat-trick, but the imperious Garry Ringrose chose to go himself, this time after some improvisational counterattacking featuring the loosehead prop, Andrew Porter, and winger Hansen. Ireland were painfully dominant – and now, 29-0 up on the hour, every stat attested to that reality.
Easier to eulogise Ireland; not so easy to find anything positive for Wales.Taine Basham’s growing reputation was sort of enhanced in adversity. His intercept try with five minutes to go was the ugliest try of the day, but reward the flanker was well worth. Adams had his moment in attack in the first half, albeit down the wing, but his yellow card for a weird body check on Sexton helped those bewitching runners score Ireland’s third. No, this was Ireland’s day, a marker laid down every bit as persuasive as their victory over the All Blacks in November. Now they go to Paris, home of the official favourites. They also beat the All Blacks in the autumn. Should be good.