English referee Wayne Bridges left the Aviva Stadium with boos ringing in his ears after a dramatic final minute turnaround in the opening RBS Six Nations game of the season on Sunday gave Wales a 23 to 21 win over Ireland.
Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions and Triple Crown hopes evaporated in the closing seconds of this Celtic derby, with Bridges the villain as far as the home crowd were concerned.
The match official drew the ire of the majority of the 50,000 supporters present when he penalized Stephen Ferris for a spear tackle challenge on Welsh lock Ian Evans.
Things went from bad to worse when Ferris was sin-binned and Leigh Halfpenny sent the resultant penalty over the crossbar to seal the two win point for the Welsh.
Bridges was roundly booed for the decision to yellow card Ferris, but he had sent Welshman Bradley Davies to the bin for an earlier spear tackle incident with substitute Donnacha Ryan.
Davies could now face further punishment for his offense, while Ireland fans are still livid that Ferris was penalized and Wales handed the match winning penalty on a plate by Bridges.
Irish number eight Jamie Heaslip refused to blame Barnes for the loss.
“Sometimes these calls go against you,” said Heaslip. There’s no point in saying, ‘Is it a penalty? Isn’t it a penalty?’ It’s done. It’s always tough to win a game when a team beats you by three tries to two.”
However, while the end result was a repeat of the World Cup win for Wales earlier in the year, in truth few of those present could have had any argument with the outcome.
Ireland did lead 10-5 at the break, after a fine Rory Best try set up by a brilliant pass from Jonathon Sexton, but Declan Kidney’s team were never really at the races.
The game did appear to be going their way when Tommy Bowe was sent across the line 12 minutes from time but Wales were always the better side.
They scored three tries on the day to Ireland’s two, with youngster George North, scorer of the third and final try, a contender for man of the match.
Jonathan Davies also crossed the Irish line twice as Wales made a mockery of their injury crisis and sent out a Championship message of their own when they took advantage of that late Ferris error.
Ireland captain Paul O’Connell admitted afterwards, “We gave Wales a lot of ball earlier in the game that we shouldn’t have done.
“We put ourselves in a position to win the game but we conceded eight points in the last five minutes. We also conceded a lot of momentum in the first half and gave them a lot of belief.
“We struggled to get into the game in the first half, and you can’t give a team that length of time with ball in hand. Defensively, we will have some work to do. We conceded a lot of ground and yardage at times, but when we attacked, we played with intensity.”
Kidney added, “We will take a good look at what we can solve ourselves. We gave Wales some easy field position, and they made inroads.
“We had to defend for 60%-plus of the game, and if you do that then you are going to ask for trouble.There are different aspects of the game I know we can improve on.
“They managed to put the ball wide on us, and we need to scan a bit better than we have been doing. We’re a lot better than that.”
A delighted Wales coach Warren Gatland said, “We were reasonably lucky. I don’t think we played as well as we could.
“To come here, be under a bit of pressure and down to 14 men, I think we showed a lot of character.
That’s the pleasing thing. The displeasing thing was a lack of discipline which could have cost us on another day. We got out of jail.”
Ireland: R. Kearney; Bowe, McFadden, D’Arcy, Trimble; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross, O’Callaghan, O’Connell, Ferris, O'Brien, Heaslip. Replacements: Ryan for O’Callaghan (63 mins), O’Gara for Sexton (74 mins), Reddan for Murray (77 mins).
STEPHEN Ferris could be in more trouble after his Aviva Stadium altercation with Wales forward Ian Evans last Sunday.
The big Ulsterman has been cited for the last minute incident that effectively cost Ireland the game.
Welsh lock Bradley Davies has also been cited by the match commissioner for his spear tackle on Irish sub Donnacha Ryan, and both players now face lengthy suspensions if found guilty.
Wales scored the match winning points from the Leigh Halfpenny penalty that followed the Ferris indiscretion.
But Ireland captain Paul O’Connell refused to blame Ferris for the defeat.
“Stephen hasn’t said a lot but I wouldn’t blame him,” said O’Connell after the game on Sunday.
“I was right beside it, and I didn’t think there was a problem straightaway, but I haven’t seen it on video. I don’t think that was the winning and losing of the game.
“I missed a tackle myself for their try. If you leave a game down to one decision and one player you’re not operating well as a team.”
Wales captain Sam Warburton, sent off in the World Cup semifinal for a spear tackle on Vincent Clerc, defended Ferris. He said, “We know he’s not a malicious player.
“He’s an aggressive tackler. It’s unfortunate because he didn’t mean it. I can sympathize with him a bit. But both he and Bradley Davies received yellow cards so at leas there’s some consistency there.”
IRELAND coach Declan Kidney refuses to give up on the championship despite defeat to Wales last Sunday.
Ireland must beat France in Paris on Saturday night to have any chance of Six Nations glory.
That looks like a long shot after the inadequacies of the Welsh performance while France were well worth their opening day win over Italy.
But Kidney remains optimistic. “Three teams have had their Grand Slams ended this weekend and three teams are still in it,” he said.
“That is the nature of it, but there is a championship still to be won. We will take a good look at what we can solve ourselves. There are different aspects of the game I know we can improve on.
“It is just a case now of getting ready for the next match in Paris.”
Captain Paul O’Connell believes Ireland can turn things around ahead of Paris on Saturday.
“We have plenty of experience in the group, and we will recover to the best of our ability. We need to be patient and trust our defense,” he said.