George North answered his critics with a brace of tries as Wales held off Ireland in a stellar Test match in Cardiff, winning 22-9.
North’s try and a Leigh Halfpenny penalty handed Wales an 8-6 half-time advantage, after three-pointers in response from Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson.
North then grabbed a second score after good work upfront from the Welsh maul, Sexton keeping Ireland in the game with a penalty at 15-9.
That six-point gap made for a remarkable final quarter as Ireland threw everything at Wales only to come up short, as a late try from Jamie Roberts put the seal on the win.
Friday’s result means that England can now win the Six Nations title a round early if they defeat Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday.
Wales head coach Rob Howley’s decision to stick with the exact same starting XV felt less like a vote a confidence and more of a last chance warning, following that abject second half at Murrayfield.
And if reputations and places in the Test side were truly on the line, then those Wales starters will head into next week’s training with a spring in their step. On a skills basis it was never perfect. But for heart and physicality, Wales could not have given anything more.
The stage to perform equally could not have been better, under Cardiff’s closed roof and backed by a deafening crowd even by the high standards of the Principality Stadium.
It was Ireland who struck first, Sexton knocking over three points to make him the second Irishman to reach the 300-point Six Nations milestone after Ronan O’Gara.
Twice Ireland sprung out of the defensive early to make interceptions but the size of the early tackles, most of all an outstanding effort by Sean O’Brien, rightly drew approving roars from the crowd. Both the consistency and quality of those huge hits rarely seemed to let up.
CJ Stander’s tackle bust and sprint up the touchline was a rare instance of defensive line speed letting Wales down, even if the hosts escaped.
As so often in this Championship however Rhys Webb provided the spark, coincidentally minutes after Sexton left the field for a Head Injury Assessment.
Setting up as if to deploy a maul, Webb upped the tempo through a quick one-two with Scott Williams, before sending a perfect pass wide to Leigh Halfpenny who sent in North from ten metres out.
Created superbly by Webb, North simply had too much power and speed having charged up onto the ball, celebrating with relish after criticism over his recent performances.
Ireland soon led again, pressure on Wales resulting in a penalty for not releasing and the unwavering Paddy Jackson making it 6-5 before Sexton returned.
From one half-back injury to another Ireland were left sweating over the condition of Conor Murray’s left bicep, as the hot favourite to start for the Lions was treated on multiple occasions after a collision at the ruck which seemed to affect the usual zip on his pass.
And as for so much of the first half the final minutes centred around Wales pressing around the fringes of Ireland’s defence for an opening deep in the visitors’ territory.
Awarded a penalty advantage Biggar’s cross-field kick found Liam Williams, left in space by Keith Earls, and as Wales surged to the line Sexton failed to roll away, receiving a yellow card as a result.
Halfpenny knocked over the resulting penalty to make it 8-6, handing the hosts a slender half-time advantage.
Somewhat surprisingly Murray returned for the second half, but it was his foot falling into touch chasing back to cover a kick which left Wales in a golden position to attack five metres from the Irish line.
They duly struck, sucking in Irish bodies through the rolling maul before North was fed down the blindside to score his second try. Halfpenny converted from the touchline, giving Wales a 15-6 lead.
Momentum, the fickle beast, felt completely with Wales and Ireland produced a fine response, surviving a period of defensive pressure before unleashing a multi-phase barrage on a tiring Wales. After two penalties Ireland settled for a shot at the posts, cutting the gap to six.
Biggar clattered the post with a drop goal attempt not long after, eager to restore Wales’ two-score lead, and the tension that resulted from that six-point gap was palpable, memories of the late defeat to England from last month still lingering.
Ireland underthrew at the lineout, Halfpenny uncharactersitcally knocked on under the ball, and when Biggar was charged down deep in his own dead-ball area it felt as though Wales were about to crack.
Robbie Henshaw’s immaculate grubber kick duly forced Halfpenny into touch and from the ensuing lineout Ireland looked set to finally break Wales down, only to concede a penalty as their maul trundled towards the try line, Robbie Henshaw the guilty party for obstruction. Irish chances repeatedly wasted.
And after Ireland had failed to find a way through from a five-metre scrum it was Wales who landed the knockout punch, Roberts the scorer after Taulupe Faletau charged down Sexton’s kick.
Exhaustion, clear on both sides, summed up an excellent Test match played at peak physicality. Yet there could only be one winner. Welsh pride restored.
Tries: North 2, Roberts
Cons: Halfpenny 2
Pens: Sexton 2, Jackson
Yellow Card: Sexton
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Tommy Bowe
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Matthew Carley (England)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)