So much was expected of this game, as the two best northern- hemisphere teams clashed in New Zealand’s capital. And boy, did they deliver on the rugby entertainment as Wales won out 22-10. STYLI CHARALAMBOUS reviews the weekend’s first quarterfinal.
An experienced Irish side, having smashed Australia, went into the first match of the quarterfinals on Saturday as slight favourites against a Welsh team that looks set to begin new era of rugby for the men of coal-mining stock.
From the opening five minutes when try-scoring machine Shane Williams went over in the corner, Ireland were always chasing the game. As the ball went through the hands, the 34- year-old veteran dived over to score his 56th Test match try in just his 88th international. Rookie flyhalf Rhys Priestland added the conversion for Wales to take an early 7-0 lead.
Coach Warren Gatland, made some surprise selections in picking this team, favouring exciting youthful picks ahead of some seasoned players. And each one of those choices paid off handsomely for the Kiwi coach. Priestland, bar missing some kicks at goal, belied his eight-Test match experience and Leigh Halfpenny played more like a £50 note with his exciting runs, long-range penalty kick and solidity under the high ball.
The first half was just magnificent as a rugby spectacle, operating at a frenzied pace, that would have suited the Welsh team having publicly crowed about their fitness.
Photo: Ireland's Tommy Bowe (L) fails to prevent Wales' Mike Phillips from scoring a try during their Rugby World Cup quarter-final match at Wellington Regional Stadium October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
Within minutes of the score, the Irish team had managed to shift momentum back in their favour as they attacked the Welsh line. The pressure took its toll on the Welsh as they conceded several kickable penalties that incredulously Brian O’Driscoll turned down in favour of driving lineout attempts. A tactic which backfired for the Irish and just didn’t make sense given the selection of 84% goal kicker Ronan O’Gara ahead of the playmaker Jonny Sexton.
After their third failed lineout drive, the Irish took their penalty kick from in front to close the score to 7-3, and keep the fans in the stadium and in front of television sets around the world, on the edge of their seats. Leigh Halfpenny kicked a huge 50m penalty to reclaim the seven-point lead as the two sides battled it out until the halftime whistle as Wales went to the change rooms with a 10-3 lead, and the game still there for either team to win.
Soon after the restart, winger Keith Earls conjured up some Irish magic as he rounded off two poor passes to score in the corner, awarded after a consultation with the TMO. O’Gara added the extra two points from the touchline and levelled the scores at 10-10. And with 35 minutes left on the clock, fans knew they were being treated to a classic world cup encounter.
However, the Irish comeback lasted about as long as it took Man of the Match Mike Phillips to round off some attacking Welsh possession and dive into the corner, in a try that again had to be referred the TMO. Wales now led 15-10 and were beginning to take control of the game.
Photo: An Ireland supporter reacts after her team lost their Rugby World Cup quarter-final match against Wales at Wellington Regional Stadium October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci
The Welsh defence was reminiscent of the rush tactics so often employed by the Springboks, and each player donning the red jersey played his part in amassing 147 tackles, 60 more than their opponents, and missing a niggardly 11. So often, coaches in preparation for the tournament, preach the mantra of “Defence wins World Cups”. And today, Wales proved this, as their dogged resistance was responsible for squeezing the life and imagination out of the Irish assault.
When Jonathan Davies broke through some lame defending in the 71st minute, Ireland switched into do-or-die mode that saw them come close to breaching the Welsh line. But a few handling errors and strong scrimmaging by the Welsh doused any chance of a miraculous comeback, as the Dragons showed maturity in closing out the game without further panic.
This quarterfinal will go down as one of the best, with the Welsh progressing to their first semi-final since the inaugural tournament in 1987. Ireland again have shown they have only one big World Cup match in them as they remain pegged to quarterfinal stages, or worse. On the back of this performance, Wales will go into the semi-final as favourites to conquer their next northern hemisphere rivals, France. Maybe now Bok fans will appreciate how tough Pool D really was, and just how good this Welsh team is. I suspect British and Irish Lions teams will be dominated by many of these guys, for years to come. DM
Tries: S Williams, Phillips, Davies
Cons: Priestland (2)
Ireland: 15 Robert Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O'Driscoll (capt), 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Ronan O'Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Tom Court, 18 Donnacha Ryan, 19 Denis Leamy, 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Jonathan Sexton, 22 Andrew Trimble.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Huw Bennett, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Lloyd Burns, 17 Paul James, 18 Bradley Davies, 19 Ryan Jones, 20 Lloyd Williams, 21 James Hook, 22 Scott Williams.
Referee: Craig Joubert (SA)
Main photo: Wales' Jonathan Davies scores a try during their Rugby World Cup quarter-final match against Ireland at Wellington Regional Stadium October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci