Unbeaten Ireland are the real deal
THAT St Patrick's Day showdown with England for the Six Nations title crept closer after Ireland passed its biggest test yet by seeing off Wales 37-27 at Lansdowne Road.
The depleted Irish enjoyed 80 per cent of the possession and territory as they built a seemingly safe lead of 27-13 going into the last quarter of a gripping match, but Wales rushed in two tries to trail 30-27 with three minutes to go and tension tightening.
Wales attacked from the kick-off and was making ground on the wings until, with 80 1/2 minutes gone, Gareth Anscombe threw a floater out to the right wing and Ireland speedster Jacob Stockdale intercepted and ran 40 metres untouched to the posts to finally settle the result.
The toughest test yet of Ireland's unbeaten campaign was also the defining one for the Welsh, whose title hopes flickered out in a second loss on the occasion of Warren Gatland's 100th Test as coach.
"We spoke about not allowing them opportunities to get penalties to drive and squeeze you," Gatland rued.
LIVE stream the 2018 Super Rugby season on FOX SPORTS. Get your free 2-week Foxtel Now trial & start watching in minutes. SIGN UP NOW >
"They were very strong in our own 22. Our line defence wasn't as good as it needed to be. We weren't able to manage the game up to halftime, which is disappointing."
Ireland host Scotland next in two weeks, not having lost a championship match at home in more than five years.
They go to two time defending champion England a week after that on March 17.
Ireland's impressive home record was at risk after losing Lions Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, and Robbie Henshaw to injuries from the routine win over Italy.
Meanwhile, Wales welcomed back Lions backs Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar, and Liam Williams.
But Ireland lost nothing in its ball control game, and scored its first try of five after a Jonathan Sexton penalty hit the post.
Wales ran it but Scott Williams threw a forward pass.
Still in the Welsh 22, Ireland ground through the phases until bullet passes by Conor Murray and Sexton gave an unmarked Stockdale a free run in on the left wing.
Sexton missed his first three goal kicks but his passing was brilliant and Ireland's grip looked firm - until Wales flanker Aaron Shingler split the defence and scrumhalf Gareth Davies pouched a loose pass and darted over.
Halfpenny converted, added a 40 metre penalty, and Wales, against all the statistics, led 13-8 close to halftime.
But Ireland practice multiple phases with time running down.
They launched another and, as the clocked ticked into the 42nd minute of the half, centre Bundee Aki reached out to score.
Sexton's conversion gave Ireland a deserved lead at the break, but only by 15-13.
Wales, despite making 101 tackles to Ireland's 30 and conceding six penalties, was handling the pressure.
Ireland finally imposed itself in the third quarter.
Flanker Dan Leavy ended 11 phases by barging over with a Sexton push.
Then Wales No 8 Ross Moriarty was caught in goal, and Ireland prop Cian Healy burrowed under three defenders to score in the right corner for the bonus point fourth try, the most Ireland has scored against Wales in 14 years.
"The most frustrating thing was at 27-13 we didn't keep that margin or grow it," Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said.
"They came back into the game with defending (by us) that could be better. And we will do better."
At 14 points behind, Wales sent on reinforcements, finally saw some ball, and opened up.
Biggar outjumped Rob Kearney, Wales spread the ball left then right, and Shingler received an overlap to touch down.
Sexton declined an easy penalty kick for a quick tap instead, but the move died from a knock on and he came off with a bruised gluteus muscle.
Murray kicked a penalty for 30-20 and it seemed game over.
Next minute, Wales wing Steff Evans was scoring a try.
Williams offloaded to Josh Navidi, who drew the last man.
Halfpenny converted, the gap was cut to three, and Wales went all out.
Until Stockdale plucked a pass out of the air and relieved the Irish.