They say attacks win matches and defences win championships. Well, this was a 27-12 Ireland victory dreamed up on Les Kiss's watch and followed through with savage purpose by his players on the pitch. The Aussie defence coach is a quiet, thoughtful sort but he'll surely have allowed himself a fist pump at some point last night. Wales could have played on in Croke Park until next Saturday and it's tough to see how they'd have scored a try.
Ireland ran over for three of their own, two from set moves off attacking line-outs but the shall-not-pass ethos was the key here. They barely ceded a useful inch to the Welsh all afternoon. They allowed Wales plenty of possession alright but more or less dared them to do something with it. They played rope-a-dope rugby and made sure their punches found chins rather than the elbows that met the Welsh ones. In the end, the collision stats said Ireland made twice as many tackles as the visitors – the regularity with which we saw the medical staff on the pitch told you they were felt on both sides.
With the scores standing at 16-6 just after half-time, Wales turned down two successive kicks at goal in favour of five-metre scrums, so certain were they that they had the Irish front row's number. They weren't alone either – two successive collapses told of their upper hand. But for the third one, John Hayes hit hard and the rest of the pack followed to turn it around, Jamie Heaslip fell on the ball and in a trice, Ireland moved to the other end of the pitch. The crowd convulsed, Wales full-back Lee Byrne threw a petty loose ball into the crowd to prevent a quick line-out and Johnny Sexton kicked his only penalty on the day to make it 19-6. The whole stadium suspected that was that. The whole stadium was right.
"That was the key play of the match," admitted Warren Gatland afterwards. "If we'd scored a try there, it was game on. But the Irish defence are very experienced and they defended it very well. That was a turning point."
Sexton had a fine game in general play but it's an outhalf's curse that a bad kicking percentage sticks out like a pimple on a model's face. He missed another four kicks at goal here, albeit that he made some amends with a sweetly-struck late drop-goal. That his waywardness didn't matter more yesterday was thanks to the breathing space allowed by two Keith Earls tries and another by Tomás O'Leary. It was apt that the Munster pair shared the tries between them, as they were the stand-out performers all day. O'Leary took the man-of-the-match award home with him but Earls would have raised just as big a cheer if it had gone his way.
His tries were finished with gusto, both times bustling through last-ditch tackles to find a connection between himself and the ground. The final one was the easiest on the eye – a flowing move from a line-out that went through Donncha O'Callaghan, O'Leary, Brian O'Driscoll, O'Leary again and finally Earls. That he was running onto it from outside centre after the reshuffle that followed Gordon D'Arcy's injury-induced first-half exit only made it more impressive.
O'Driscoll himself had one of those days when he's just another player. Still busy, still contributing, just not as stellar as Earls or O'Leary. Afterwards, he conceded that the extraordinary reception that greeted him when he led the team out choked him up a little.
"It was probably more emotional than I thought it would be," O'Driscoll said, "but it was a fantastic feeling. It's a massive, massive honour to have played for my country a hundred times. And the reception on the way out was just an extra on winning the game."
On then to Saturday and another tilt at another Triple Crown. That it's worth no more than a shrug for most folk now is testament to what O'Driscoll and his team have done over the past decade. The emotion he felt yesterday was hard-earned.
As hard-earned as the victory that followed it.
Match report, player ratings & neil francis' analysis, pages 2 & 3