By Mark Jones
DUBLIN – Ireland’s international rugby team may not be the best in Europe, but right now it has to be the most unpredictable in Europe. Smarting from a humiliating loss to the Scots little over three weeks ago, the Irish bounced back to run up a record victory over Wales in last Saturday’s Six Nations championship game in Cardiff.
Amid dire predictions of what fate would befall coach Warren Gatland and several of his more high-profile players in the event of another defeat, a lineup with seven changes from the one that had crumbled in Edinburgh restored some badly needed respectability.
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Dominant throughout, the Irish still found the Welsh defense difficult to crack until the final quarter of the game, when three tries by Denis Hickie, Brian O’Driscoll and Shane Horgan in the space of 8 minutes meant that the scoreboard more truly reflected the visitors’ superiority.
While Ireland undoubtedly upped the tempo from the unbelievably sluggish performance against the Scots, Wales were so abject in just about every area of the pitch the result has to be put into perspective. Horgan and the recalled Mick Galwey both squandered try-scoring opportunities in the first half, and David Humphreys had a drop goal erroneously disallowed by South African referee Jonathan Kaplan.
So, a 15-6 lead going into those closing stages was scant reward for almost constant pressure, and, in truth, Ireland should have put the game well beyond Wales’ reach long before that late decisive scoring burst.
If Gatland’s side cannot now win the title — a victory by more than 61 points will be needed against England in the final match of the series at Lansdowne Road on Saturday — there is at least the certainty of a best finish in the championship since 1985. The English will be without their injured captain, Martin Johnson, as well as Lawrence Dallaglio, so there is also hope of a first win against the oldest rival in seven years.
“For us to beat England, we need them to be a little bit unprepared,” admitted Gatland. “I think after our performance against Wales, they’re going to be a lot warier than they would’ve been. We’ve already finished second in the championship, so the pressure is on them to perform.”
Even if the resistance provided by a woeful Welsh side was vastly inferior to that of Scotland, Ireland played with much more verve and purpose. Humphreys, who replaced the out-of-favor Ronan O’Gara, was a revelation at out-half with his astute tactical kicking and overall control. Humphreys’s partnership with Peter Stringer blossomed in the second half, but it was the performances of the two wing forwards, David Wallace and Eric Miller, that really made the difference.
Wallace made yards of ground with his strong running, and Miller utterly justified his recall with an accomplished performance. “I thought they were both outstanding,” Gatland said. “They carried the ball superbly and Humphreys did the basics well., I thought he had an excellent game.”
The only negative was Horgan’s unconvincing display on the wing. More at home in the center, he blew one try-scoring chance by going for the line instead of passing to an unmarked teammate and he lacks the necessary pace for international level. However, with Geordan Murphy currently injured, he will hold on to his place for the England game
Humphreys’s five penalties was all Ireland had to show for a massive territorial advantage going into the last quarter, but where in the past they might have panicked, captain Keith Wood had emphasized the necessity of staying patient, and it paid off. First, Hickie scorched down the right wing for a try, then O’Driscoll capitalized on a Welsh error to touch down and the game was already dead when Horgan was put clear for simple run in to the line.
Ireland G. Dempsey; S. Horgan, B. O’Driscoll, K. Maggs, D. Hickie; D. Humphreys, P. Stringer; P. Clohessy, K. Wood, J. Hayes, M. O’Kelly, M. Galwey, E. Miller, D. Wallace, A. Foley. Subs: T. Brennan for Galwey, 58 mins.; E. Byrne for Clohessy, 63 mins.; R. O’Gara for Humphreys, F. Sheahan for Wood, both 78 mins.; K. Dawson for Wallace, 80 mins.