Dublin: Ireland ended Welsh dreams of a record third Six Nations title in a row, with a clinical display in Dublin’s Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
Warren Gatland’s men simply never got close to the hosts, who tactically outmanoeuvred the giants in red, and boasted raw strength and aggression to complete the rout.
Ireland have not begun a Six Nations with back-to-back victories since the Grand Slam year of 2009, and this comprehensive result will have them dreaming in Dublin.
“Well it always helps to have the first two games at home and we would be disappointed not to have four points,” said Ireland’s outstanding captain Paul O’Connell.
“Still it puts us in great heart for what will be a tremendous challenge against England at Twickenham in a fortnight,” added the lock.
Jonny Sexton’s boot dominated the game, but the performances of Peter O’Mahony, O’Connell, Andrew Trimble and Rob Kearney will give England boss Stuart Lancaster plenty to ponder ahead of the mammoth clash in Twickenham in two weeks’ time.
“It was a very disciplined performance,” said O’Connell.
“I thought we were excellent all round but from now on it gets a lot harder.”
Wales’s Sam Warburton was gracious in defeat.
“We were definitely outplayed, full credit to Ireland they were fantastic really,” said the flanker.
“Now it will be a real test of character for us to pull ourselves together for the France match in a fortnight.”
Ireland were already in confident mood following their 28-6 opening day win over Scotland, reflected in Joe Schmidt’s decision to make just two changes to the starting line-up.
O’Connell, who withdrew on the morning of the Scotland game with a chest infection, returned, while Gordon D’Arcy resumed his record breaking midfield partnership with Brian O’Driscoll, making what’s likely to be his penultimate Ireland appearance on home soil.
Wales were boosted by the return to fitness of Warburton, who was one of three changes in the forward line, alongside Gethin Jenkins and Andrew Coombs.
Ireland were the only team to beat Wales in 11 Six Nations clashes, but the hype surrounding this game was not about the theme of Welsh revenge, but an altogether different grudge match, pitting the ‘coldhearted’ Lions boss Gatland v ‘scorned’ centre O’Driscoll and Ireland’s eight Lions v Wales’ 12.
But the real edge to this game was that the winner could automatically become title favourites.
Perhaps it was that possibility that led to a scrappy first half that was largely devoid of rhythm or skill, but the home fans weren’t complaining with their 13-0 lead at the break.
It wasn’t quite the 27 point half-time lead they enjoyed last year, but it was merited, with O’Connell, O’Mahony and Trimble outstanding for the boys in green.
Ireland weathered a strong start by Wales, before Sexton racked up six points with two straightforward penalties before the 20th minute.
In between, the entire stadium took a deep breath as O’Driscoll was downed by a bone shaking tackled by Scott Williams, but the centre is going to go out on his terms this season and made it to the final whistle.
The ball was often in the air, with Sexton clearly intent on turning the Welsh on their heels, and it was one of those kicks that led to the opening try.
The execution was training ground perfection, with Devin Toner collecting the lineout and feeding Chris Henry, who was bundled over the line for his first international try.
Sexton added the extras, and then notched a key penalty after the break to put more than two converted tries between the sides.
Halfpenny finally got Wales on the scoreboard with a penalty on 56 minutes, but Sexton responded four minutes later to restore the 16 point gap.
Wales pounded the Irish defence, only to see Rhodri Jones’s ‘try’ disallowed for a double movement in the build up, and the visitor’s comeback efforts drifted away as the rain showers did.
Paddy Jackson, on the field just four minutes, did what Wales couldn’t do in 80, and touched down on 78 to rub salt into the Welsh wounds.