A scintillating Ireland began their 2022 Six Nations campaign in perfect fashion, romping past Wales 29-7 at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Centres Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose, and wing Andrew Conway (two) scored Ireland’s tries, while skipper Johnny Sexton added three conversions and a penalty in a display of free-flowing attack from the hosts.
Ireland – Tries: Aki, Conway (two), Ringrose. Cons: Sexton (three). Pens: Sexton
Wales – Tries: Basham. Cons: Sheedy. Yellow Cards: Adams
An injury-hit Wales provided meek resistance as they were completely outplayed, with centre Josh Adams sin-binned for a high tackle on Sexton and flanker Taine Basham scoring a late consolation.
The performance and victory will have delighted Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, as a full stadium was on hand to salute some outstanding play as the men in green picked up where they left off after an impressive autumn.
Ireland made a sensational start to the contest, with centre Aki sliding over in just the third minute after debutant Mack Hansen began life on the Test stage with a searing break up the left wing after a Sexton clearance kick had ricocheted to him.
Thereafter, Hansen grubberd a kick ahead which Wales’ Biggar could only kick off the park under pressure, allowing Ireland to build phases within the visitors’ 22 following the lineout and strike to deadly effect in the corner via Aki after a trademark Sexton wraparound attack.
The Irish skipper converted off the touchline for the perfect start, but when loosehead Andrew Porter earned a breakdown penalty five minutes later, Sexton surprisingly struck wide with his first penalty of the championship.
In the 15th minute Sexton missed another straightforward penalty attempt, again striking right of the posts into the wind, after the silky Ringrose had made a linebreak from deep.
Still Ireland kept coming in attack, but a Josh van der Flier knock on just outside the Wales 22 ended their next promising move.
Connacht wing Mack Hansen started for his Ireland Test debut, with Keith Earls (hamstring) and James Lowe out injured. Tadhg Beirne started in the second row with Iain Henderson not fully fit. Otherwise, 13 of the starting XV were the side which beat New Zealand 29-20 in November.
Wales arrived to Dublin missing the experience of Alun Wyn Jones (shoulder), Leigh Halfpenny (knee), Ken Owens (back), George North (knee), Justin Tipuric (shoulder), Josh Navidi (shoulder) and Taulupe Faletau (ankle). Josh Adams started at 13 for the first time at Test level, with Jonathan Davies left out.
The one-way traffic continued though, with Ireland relentless in attack and forcing Wales into another penalty within their 22 for offside. At the third time of asking, Sexton struck through the uprights from close-range for a 10-0 lead.
Wales – who failed to enter the Ireland 22 for the entirety of the first quarter – had their first sniff of a chance on 23 minutes when an Ireland lineout malfunction handed the visitors possession in a threatening area, but the opportunity was snuffed out when Tadhg Beirne and co forced a choke tackle maul and turnover.
A poor pass by Ireland scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park off the knees of Aki presented the ball back to Wales shortly after, affording a second 22 entry in the space of two minutes, but the chance went begging when Tomos Williams knocked on after colliding with his own man.
No 8 Jack Conan forced a superb breakdown penalty to complete Ireland’s exit, but with the wind whipping up, territory proved hard to find via the boot for the home side.
A stunning passage of offloading and quick passing did then have Ireland on the cusp of a second try with five minutes remaining of the first half, but a Sexton offload was picked off by Wales’ Johnny McNicholl at the crucial moment.
Sexton underwent treatment and heavy strapping for a leg injury in the next stoppage, and though 15 phases of Irish attack followed in the final minutes of the half, another poor Gibson-Park pass over the head of Hansen left things 10-0 at the break.
Wales began the second period by conceding two penalties – for offside and playing legs in a maul – handing Ireland the initiative to kick to the corner and attack, from where Conway did brilliantly to reach and score out wide – after another penalty advantage.
Sexton swerved over the difficult conversion for 17-0, and with Wales in urgent need of a response, things only got worse when centre Josh Adams was sin-binned for playing Sexton high and recklessly.
On 51 minutes, Conway had his second try and Ireland’s third when he dotted down out wide after more magnificent Irish attacking – flanker van der Flier scything through a gap after another wraparound move and crisp Irish offloading.
Sexton was successful with a third conversion from virtually on the touchline, but Ireland passed up a clear chance for the bonus-point try near the hour mark when they were pinged for obstruction at the maul.
A powerful rip from prop Porter stole possession back with Adams still in the sin-bin, though, allowing Ireland to counterattack at great pace and Ringrose to sprint and jink over for the vital fourth try.
With a healthy 29-0 lead heading into the final quarter, Ireland were able to take off key men Sexton, Porter, James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong and Ronan Kelleher ahead of a trip to Paris next week.
Though the majority of the rest of the contest continued to be played in the Wales third, Ireland could not add further scores as errors crept into a disjointed last few minutes, with Ringrose shifted to the wing as Conway departed with a knock.
Wales were fortunate even to ensure they wouldn’t leave scoreless, as openside Basham notched an intercept try as Ireland looked to play out from deep.
One potential worry for Farrell is the fitness or otherwise of 36-year-old playmaker Sexton, who seemed to struggle with a leg injury throughout. The No 10 is absolutely critical to the way Ireland are playing at present, and resembles a player 10 years younger such has been his skill and spark.
Next up for Ireland is perhaps their toughest assignment on paper in this year’s championship, as they travel to face tournament favourites France in Paris next Saturday, February 12 (4.45pm kick off GMT).
29-7 win vs Wales (H)
Saturday February 12
Sunday, February 27
Saturday, March 12
Saturday, March 19
Wales will host Scotland at the Principality Stadium, also on Saturday, February 12 (2.15pm kick off GMT), for their Round 2 fixture.
29-7 loss vs Ireland (A)
Saturday, February 12
Saturday, February 26
Friday, March 11
Saturday, March 19