16-16 points all and the reaction from both Ireland and Welsh players spoke volumes, a draw was of little use for both sides and dreams of a grand slam are shelved for another season. The Sunday afternoon fixture was the stand-out game of the weekend as both teams launched into the other with a velocity and tempo that was not seen in the other two fixtures. Ireland’s retirements and injuries in the lead-up of the contest suggested that Wales had the advantage but the hosts roared into this contest from the first exchange.
A rousing early passage of play started by a snipping run from Zebo resulted in an early Ireland penalty which Johnny Sexton slotted home. Ireland continued to keep the Welsh on the back foot and more indiscipline from the visitors was punished by Sexton with another three points. This period of dominance required Ireland to register a try for their efforts and it duly came as Conor Murray crossed over identifying space in the Welsh defense from close range. All credit to the Ireland pack in the lead-up to this score as Wales were scrambling to organize defensively and the Ireland team were clearing rucks with efficiency not allowing Tipuric, Warburton or Faletau a chance to spoil or steal ball at the breakdown.
Ireland were in control of the game with a thirteen point lead but then a sloppy last ten minutes of the opening period was clinically punished by the visitors. Keith Earls was perhaps unfortunate not to spend time in the sin bin as his tackle on Liam Williams resulted in the full back hitting deck with no support from Earls. With Biggar off the pitch due to a foot injury, Priestland took over the penalty kicking duties and duly converted the transgression.
Wales knew that they needed to close the gap further before the interval and it duly came courtesy of the phenom Faletau who did brilliantly to touch down despite the attentions of three Ireland players. The lead-up to the try will be greeted with great satisfaction in the Welsh front row, an unit sometimes maligned in their scrum set piece but today they were the dominant force and exposed Nathan White in the closing stages of the first half by Rob Evans. McGrath’s expected dominance on Samson Lee never materialized and how the Welsh pack wheeled the Irish scrum in the lead-up to the Faletau was extremely impressive. Ireland from a point of dominance were now struggling for ascendency and a three point lead at the interval was incredibly disappointing.
The second half was attritional as both teams put their bodies on the line throughout. Both teams attempted to launch their three quarters but both were met by stern defensive structures. Wales started the half with dominance in ball possession and when Tommy O’Donnell was pinged at the breakdown, Priestland slotted the resultant penalty over to level the scores after forty-six minutes.
Ireland were now having to dig deep to stem the constant barrage of Welsh attacks in the third quarter but defensive system remained intact as Ireland line speed and first time tackles were on point. Wales though did take the lead with nine minutes left as Ireland were penalized for not rolling away from a ruck and Priestland held his nerve. Wales will rue their inability to keep the lead as an errand aerial bomb saw several Welsh players in offside positions. Sexton’s penalty kick was excellent considering the health of the player when he hauled himself off immediately after.
16-16 and both sides tried to win the contest with several excellent passages of play but with the conditions deteriorating with each passing minute, the draw was the most likely outcome. The decision of Payne to drubber kick the ball at the death raised questions but with both sides defensive performances on the money throughout, something creative was required to try to break the deadlock.
Both head coaches will look at this result as an opportunity spurned, a little more cohesion on certain exchanges could have being decisive. Faletau had a monster game for Wales, constantly involved in tackling and running with ball in hand gaining game line yards. Priestland’s performance at out-half was excellent considering his lack of game minutes with Bath. The Welsh front row had one of their most impressive games in recent years. Rob Evans was the standout front row on show, consistently probing in the scrum.
Ireland will look at the performance of CJ Stander as a source of satisfaction. The Munster player was typically all action; breaking first time tackles and setting good platform ball for Murray to launch his back line. The defensive structures and breakdown also caught the eye as Henshaw, O’Donnell, Stander and Heaslip all were prominent in stifling Wales’ back row strengths. Ireland will look at the front five as a potential issue area. The scrum was second best today and the lack of lineout options was exposed in certain intervals. Best looked to Toner, Heaslip throughout but Mike McCarthy option was shaky to say the least. A six day turnaround will do little to rectify these issues but a draw is something to build on for both teams. An entertaining match and one suspects that both sides will be vying for the RBS Championship come the end of the championship.