By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — As the green jerseys trooped off Lansdowne Road’s pockmarked pitch on Sunday, they really should have been shaking hands with the opposition. Instead, the Irish players were pinching themselves.
Several days after this astonishing record Six Nations victory over Wales, reality probably hasn’t yet hit home. The game was meant to be a nervy, close-run contest. Two teams under pressure; Ireland with a new coach and missing four of the regular starting side, while Wales were desperately trying to rediscover the era when they were the leading lights in Europe. It was meant to be tight, the result hanging in the balance until the death. No one, but no one, expected a rout of these proportions.
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Dwelling too long on Welsh failings will only detract from what was an outstanding Irish performance, which was efficient, intelligent and, best of all, ruthless. Irish teams of old would have sat on a 24-3 halftime lead — then again Irish teams never had that sort of advantage in a major championship match — but this model soaked up an unconvincing mini-revival by Wales, before emphasizing their all-around superiority with three more tries in the final minutes.
Dublin has witnessed several frenzied occasions since Irish rugby found its feet again over the last two years, but this performance was difficult to absorb for anyone who bore witness to previous humiliations. Coach Eddie O’Sullivan’s players executed the game plan with such purpose, and at times with such swagger, that the winners’ sustained quality was scarcely credible.
From the time wing Geordan Murphy seared through the Welsh defense in the fifth minute, to substitute Ronan O’Gara’s flourish in injury time, the outcome was never in the slightest doubt. A total of six tries, and a further 22 points from the laser boot of David Humphreys, left the Welsh wondering what had hit them.
O’Sullivan could even afford to send on all seven of his substitutes without upsetting his team’s awesome rhythm. Gary Longwell stepped in for the injured Paul O’Connell in the second row after half an hour and proceeded to upset the Welsh lineout, and then later additions Keith Gleeson and O’Gara both put their names on the scoresheet.
The loss before the start of luminaries such as Keith Wood, Malcolm O’Kelly, Eric Miller and Shane Horgan through injury appeared to have damaged Ireland’s prospects, but if a chronic lack of strength in depth was once such a burning issue, it’s now off the agenda as stand-in captain Mick Galwey confirmed.
“There’s a difference about this team,” he said. “Before, we were depending on individual players to win games for us, but there are no more weak links. You saw the strength in depth. We had injury problems, but the players who came in did brilliantly. That kind of competition for places keeps everyone honest.”
Galwey, who’s 35, grabbed his opportunity to captain Ireland for the first time in Wood’s absence and roamed about the pitch as if his career was just starting. Ireland’s other veteran, Peter Clohessy, celebrated the victory and his 50th international appearance with an astounding display in the loose. With birthday number 36 scheduled for next month, Clohessy turned back the clock with one of his best performances ever.
But then, quality simply oozed through every Irish pore. True, Wales were a pitiful shambles of indecision and incoherence, yet it would be crass to regard the losers’ demoralized play as the sole reason for Ireland’s breathtaking success. Conditions were far from easy, a gusting wind blew straight down the pitch and the surface was greasy after several days of rain, and still O’Sullivan’s developing side held nearly every pass and rounded off nearly every scoring opportunity.
“I thought Wales had a much better team coming here and I thought conditions were going to turn it into a lottery,” O’Sullivan admitted. “I don’t think Wales did that badly. I’d say we didn’t let them do very well. Sometimes you can only play as well as opponents let you, and to be fair, we didn’t give them much room to operate.”
Wales won the toss, and for some reason gave the strong breeze to the Irish, who took quick advantage with tries by Murphy, who tracked a devastating break by David Wallace, and new second row O’Connell. Humphreys’s boot did the rest, and the home team were 24-3 in front at the changeover.
Facing into the wind, there was every reason to believe that the Irish would have a struggle on their hands during the second half. However, Murphy’s second try, following excellent approach work by Clohessy and Kevin Maggs, snuffed out any lingering hopes of a Welsh revival. Denis Hickie, Gleeson and O’Gara added to the visitors’ woes as the 50-point barrier was passed in injury time.
The next step, a week from Saturday against England at Twickenham, will undoubtedly be more difficult. The English brushed aside Scotland’s challenge by 29-3 in Edinburgh and are still favorites to retain the Six Nations title, but Ireland could have a major say in this season’s shake-up.
“We’re not going to England fearing anything,” said Humphreys.
For once, it wasn’t mere fighting talk.
IRELAND: G. Dempsey; G. Murphy, B. O’Driscoll, K. Maggs, D. Hickie; D. Humphreys, P. Stringer; P. Clohessy, F. Sheahan, J. Hayes, M. Galwey (capt.), P. O’Connell, S. Easterby, D. Wallace, A. Foley. Subs: G. Longwell for O’Connell, 32 mins.; S. Byrne for Sheahan, D. Wallace for Clohessy, K. Gleeson for Galwey, all 72 mins.; R. O’Gara for Humphreys, R. Henderson for Hickie, G. Easterby for Stringer, all 74 mins.