Ireland’s victory over Wales had more significance than usual. With the big margin of victory as well as results elsewhere mean that Ireland are now up to the highest ranking they’ve ever had.
While there are still some games to go, Ireland as back to back Six Nations champions could go into the World Cup as the second best team in the world.
The new rankings that will be confirmed on Monday will look like this:
1. New Zealand 92.72
2. Ireland 86.89
3. Australia 86.84
4. England 85.40
5. South Africa 84.37
6. Wales 82.97
7. Argentina 79.17
8. France 77.17
9. Fiji 76.73
10. Samoa 75.44
The jump in places came after Ireland’s dominant display over Wales this weekend, full match report below;
In his first Test appearance since March 2013, Keith Earls touched down to add to earlier tries from stand-in captain Jamie Heaslip and Darren Cave as Ireland went in at the break leading 25-7.
Richard Hibbard’s try just before half-time gave Wales some hope under the closed Millennium Stadium roof, but Joe Schmidt’s men were in clinical form as both Simon Zebo and Felix Jones crossed the whitewash while Welsh flanker Ross Moriarty was in the sin-bin.
The match petered out as a contest in the final quarter, albeit with Justin Tipuric and Alex Cuthbert scoring two late consolation tries. Of more pressing concern for the Irish management were the injuries picked up by Andrew Trimble and Tommy O’Donnell in either half.
Trimble was replaced by Zebo nearing the interval and O’Donnell was stretchered off in the dying minutes after falling awkwardly in a double tackle. Speaking afterwards, Schmidt explained: “Tommy’s gone (to hospital) for a scan. At the moment we know he’s hurt his hip but we don’t know what the injury is and we’ll know more about that in the next 24 to 48 hours.
“The frustrating thing for Tommy is that he made 14 or 15 tackles, he got at least three, maybe four or five turnovers. I thought he started the game really strongly and he’s such a dynamic player for us that we’re just going to cross our fingers and wait and see to be honest.
“Andrew Trimble was only going to play 40 minutes. He has a minor foot strain and we’ll know more in the next 24 hours.”
The manner of the performance and result gave Ireland a very positive start to their run of pre-Rugby World Cup fixtures. They also picked up silverware in the form of the Dove Men Trophy which was accepted by Heaslip, now Ireland’s most-capped back rower, and prop Mike Ross who won his 50th cap in Cardiff.
Ross had the honour of leading the team out as he joined the select band of Irish props who have hit the half-century mark – Cian Healy, Peter Clohessy, Phil Orr, Marcus Horan and John Hayes.
Ireland were ahead within eight minutes, centres Earls and Cave getting their hands on the ball early on and scrum half Eoin Reddan dictating play from ruck to ruck. The visitors’ physicality at the breakdown and scrum and sharpness on the ball, allied to their greater levels of experience, were key factors in them establishing control of the scoreboard.
Reddan launched a break up the blindside that involved Fergus McFadden and Earls, with the latter just failing to link with the scrum half as the try-line neared. But Ireland pressurised Welsh skipper Scott Williams into a handing error and after Cave went close with a direct run, Reddan’s precise pass gave Heaslip an easy run-in from the left.
Paddy Jackson, who missed the conversion, was on target with an 18th minute penalty attempt as Ireland continued to press for points. Jones made a searing break over halfway and Earls threatened from a chip to the corner, with Cave also carrying forcefully in the midfield traffic.
Into the second quarter, Earls continued to be Ireland’s main danger man as he swept inside Williams and was just thwarted by a couple of despairing tackles near the Welsh line. It was his centre partner Cave who succeeded in scoring barely a minute later, Reddan releasing him from the resulting scrum as the Ulsterman’s angled run caught the Welsh defence off guard.
Jackson converted for a 15-0 lead before a bright Welsh spell was broken up by a Jordi Murphy lineout steal five metres out. Ireland were making the most of their chances at the other end, the ever-alert Earls taking advantage of a favourable bounce to sprint clear from the Welsh 10-metre line. The ball was dislodged from Eli Walker’s grasp by a superbly-timed tackle from Trimble, and Earls was there to claim it and run in his first Test try in over three years.
Jones popped up again in attack soon after, stretching his legs on a promising sortie downfield. Wales were struggling to keep up and it took a crucial tackle from centre Williams to prevent Trimble from going over in the right corner.
Ross and Richardt Strauss, who looked back to his hard-grafting best, were also stopped short of the line before Walker did just enough to prevent Jones from freeing up Trimble for another quick-fire try-scoring opportunity.
Heaslip called on Jackson to add three points to Ireland’s tally from right in front of the posts, although the visitors allowed Wales to dictate during a short but productive spell before half-time. A training ground move at a close-in lineout saw Tipuric send hooker Hibbard over unopposed in the left corner.
James Hook landed the conversion from wide out and the Welsh very nearly added a second try before referee Glen Jackson blew for half-time. Walker, the most threatening of the home backs, just lost control of the ball as he dived for what would have been a debut score.
Warren Gatland’s charges suffered an early setback in the second period, as new blindside Moriarty saw yellow for a swinging arm challenge on Zebo. The Corkman had to be bundled into touch shortly afterwards, with Heaslip, Strauss and Iain Henderson all prominent in the build-up of a dynamic attack.
Ireland were far more fluent than their opponents, attacking off a solid set piece structure that saw the fit-again Donnacha Ryan take charge of the lineouts. That very platform led to Zebo’s 48th-minute effort, with Reddan tackled short before O’Donnell swiftly fed his Munster colleague to dive over past Cuthbert in the corner.
Zebo turned provider six minutes later when his tremendously delivered long pass put Jones raiding in from the left for his third try in two starts. The excellent Heaslip got the plaudits for winning turnover ball at a ruck, launching his side into an industrious attack with Ross, McFadden and Cave all carrying with great intent before Zebo expertly unlocked the Welsh defence out wide.
Matthew Morgan, the liveliest of the Welsh replacements, then injected some much-needed pace into their game and it paid dividends as they forced Ireland onto the back foot. A series of ruck infringements led to Chris Henry, who came on for Heaslip, being yellow carded on the hour mark.
The replacement front row – Rory Best, Dave Kilcoyne and Michael Bent – maintained Ireland’s stranglehold of the scrum, and the visitors’ bench were fully emptied when Ian Madigan was introduced in the centre and Kieran Marmion won cap number three at scrum half. The changes also saw Zebo get some game-time in the full-back position.
A very clever move down the left yielded a fine try for busy flanker Tipuric, who showed great hands and feet as he linked intelligently with the work-hungry Tyler Morgan and Hallam Amos. Gareth Anscombe, son of former Ulster boss Mark, converted from the left.
Ireland were keen to have the final say as Madigan, with a couple of noteworthy runs, tested out the Welsh defence and brought the Six Nations champions back into the hosts’ 22. But O’Donnell lost the ball forward as he sustained his injury, and the momentum swung back to Wales who watched Anscombe provide the assist and conversion for Cuthbert’s closing score.
Giving his assessment of the Irish display, Schmidt commented: “There were aspects we were very happy with, the set piece gave us opportunities to get into the game along with some great defensive pressure. It was disappointing that we loosened up defensively after the break and our discipline let us down.
“A number of guys went well, Donnacha Ryan bossed the lineout really well, we’re delighted he finally got onto the pitch for us. Jamie played well, so did Keith Earls. I’d say Dan Tuohy spurred him (Ryan) on late in the game when he made a few tackles getting off the line, but that’s all part of having a squad that is competitive.”