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Wales crush Ireland to win third Six Nations grand slam in 11 years

The Guardian logo The Guardian 16/03/2019 Observer Sport
a rugby player on a field: The centre Hadleigh Parkes opens the scoring for Wales during their Six Nations match against Ireland at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. © AFP/Getty Images The centre Hadleigh Parkes opens the scoring for Wales during their Six Nations match against Ireland at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff.

On the eve of the day of St Patrick, a hat-trick of grand slams for Warren Gatland. Wales’s head coach marked his final campaign in the Six Nations, with the men in red at least, in the manner of his first by beating all the rest. Ireland did not consider him to be good enough when they sacked him in 2001 but his record since then has been one of unrivalled success.

No coach in the history of the championship, five nations or six, had masterminded three grand slams and this victory reflected the mental and physical resolve he has brought to a side known for its flakiness and tendency to implode after success. In terms of individual players, this is far from Wales’s best ever, but as a team, there has never been one as collectively strong.

Gatland said in the build-up that matches between teams of near-equal strength were usually decided by which one wanted it that little bit more. From the kick-off, which Alun Wyn Jones opted for after winning the toss, Wales had the appetite of junkyard dogs that had not been fed for a week. They ripped into everything and their 16-0 lead was down not just to taking most of their chances but causing Ireland’s set pieces to malfunction.

There is no more dangerous side, statistically, in an opponents’ 22 than Ireland. After 23 minutes here, when they trailed 10-0, they were awarded a penalty which they kicked to touch and drove a line-out from 12 metres out. The manoeuvre has proved bountiful for them in the Joe Schmidt era and Wales set up to defend the maul rather than contest the lineout.

Ireland rumbled forwards, but the second row Adam Beard, in the manner of one of his predecessors, Luke Charteris, used his long reach to get his hands on the ball. Ireland tried to release his grip, knowing that otherwise they would concede a scrum, but Justin Tipuric leant a hand and held on. A few minutes later, Ireland had a scrum in Wales’s 22. They were awarded a free-kick which CJ Stander took too quickly as he tapped the ball into the back of a teammate.

They were two key moments in the half. Wales defended as a team to frustrate opponents who pride themselves on rarely being ruffled, typical of their championship campaign. They have not been the most adventurous side or the most technically equipped, but no one has played with such assurance in those around them and not even the early loss of George North with a wrist injury jolted their momentum: Dan Biggar came on at outside-half with Gareth Anscombe moving to the wing and Liam Williams switching to the right wing.

North had set them up for the perfect start, chasing Anscombe’s kick-off and bouncing Jacob Stockdale into touch. Wales took play through a few phases after the lineout and, after drawing CJ Stander off-side, milked the advantage, Anscombe chipping deftly into space for Hadleigh Parkes to exploit a rush defence and score.

The match was 70 seconds old and the crowd, which brought the Welsh national anthem to a rousing conclusion, in full voice. Ireland looked for a response, but having opted for the roof to be kept open, the rain made handling hazardous. Wales used their scrum-half Gareth Davies to tackle low around the fringes, hurrying Ireland into making decisions.

Ireland’s first opportunity came after five minutes when Josh Adams, chasing a long kick, tripped Keith Earls. The referee, Angus Gardner, ruled that the offence was inadvertent and confined his sanction to a penalty which Jonathan Sexton took quickly. He kicked the ball across field for Stockdale who, with Wales not reacting to the unexpected, set off the line 45 metres away. He went around Davies and seemed destined to make it until Parkes, displaying the desire Gatland had referenced, caught the wing and forced a knock-on.

It was typical of a side that gave nothing up, forcing its own destiny. Ireland were thrown off course, bungling two line-outs and penalised at three scrums. Without their staples, they were drawn into Wales’s game of hustling and kicking into space. The home side only carried the ball for 47 metres in the opening half, but they spent most of it in Ireland’s half and took most of their opportunities.

Anscombe supplemented the early try he helped create with three penalties, all carelessly conceded by Ireland, Stander and Tadhg Furlong straying off-side and Cian Healy collapsing a scrum. It was the tap-tap effect of the pressure and control Wales were exerting and the one blemish for the home side came after 11 minutes when a 17-phase move inside Ireland’s 22 ended when Tadhg Beirne forced a turnover off Ken Owens, his captain at Scarlets last season.

There was a symmetry about the interval score. Wales had trailed 16-0 at the break in Paris on the opening night of the tournament only to mount one of the greatest comebacks in its history. Ireland’s cause was not helped by their refusal to agree to the roof being closed. The rain was steady rather than heavy, not helping the team playing catch-up.

Anyway, Wales never relented, spurred on by their captain Alun Wyn Jones who cried out in pain in the opening minutes after twisting his knee in a ruck. He was treated for three minutes but there was no way the warrior was leaving the field of battle, adrenaline numbing the pain as he continued to throw himself into challenges until the very end.

There was no second-half response from Ireland. Two penalties from Anscombe in the third quarter, after Healy and Stander conceded soft penalties, put Wales more than three converted tries ahead.

Ireland had a few more attacking lineouts, but the crown had been ripped from the champions’ head, exposing a bald patch. The biggest cheer of the half, other than that which greeted the final whistle, came when Sexton passed to touch rather than Stockdale 10 metres out. Jordan Larmour broke Ireland’s duck with the final move of the match, but it was no consolation as Wales leapfrogged them to second in the world rankings having been 10th when Gatland took over.


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