Six Nations 2014: Ireland are title contenders after dismantling Wales
Six Nations 2014: Oisin Gregorian looks at Ireland's start to the championship and their title chance
If Joe Schmidt was looking for the performance to build his plan on, he found it.
In utterly dismantling the defending champions over 80 minutes of intense and effective rugby, the Kiwi announced himself to the Six Nations amphitheatre in quite some style.
Now, with just three games separating Schmidt and his players from a second Grand Slam in five years, the onus on achieving at least the Six Nations Championship will now become a whole lot greater.
Thanks in part to a kind fixture list which included two home games over the space of six days, Schmidt now finds himself in a position of managing a momentum he has yet to experience in his short tenure of Ireland coach thus far.
With a trip to Twickenham before returning to home face Italy and finishing up in Paris in mid-March, the task remains far from impossible.
In The Aviva on Saturday afternoon, the long-term Ireland plan Schmidt envisages came to life.
In truth, this was one of the more one-sided Ireland-Wales games of recent times, and if one was to look back on previous Irish triumphs, this will certainly rank up there as one of the country’s most impressive.
From the opening exchanges of play until the final phase, Ireland were rampant and rarely let their opponents manage to get any foothold in the game. Even more impressively, they managed to keep their discipline intact with Leigh Halfpenny waiting to punish.
Instead it was their opponents that were the undisciplined ones, and Jonathan Sexton more than obliged in the process.
Soaking up every bit of pressure put on them in the opening half, the home side eventually managed to turn the screw.
Against Scotland a week ago, Ireland were criticised for a lack of intensity in the opening forty. Here, it was completely the opposite. Each and every Ireland player were stoked up for the occasion; making sure each Wales attack was cancelled out with brute force.
From then the Irish took the game to their opponents and rarely looked back, marching into a 13-3 lead and doubling their tally in the second half, consigning Warren Gatland and co to a first away defeat in the competition since 2011.
Billed as one of the tightest matchups between the sides in recent memory, the match turned into one of the series’ most one-sided – leaving the Welsh coaching staff and Sam Warburton at a loss to explain what went wrong in the post-match press conference.
For Ireland, this was one of their finest competitive performances, and without doubt a performance that must be built upon in the coming weeks and months. Now aided by a week break before a trip to London, the task becomes ever more straightforward.
Win in London and the chance of Grand Slam showdown becomes a reality, but the beauty of the Six Nations means that a loss at Twickenham will make this particular performance count for absolutely nothing.
Both Schmidt and O’Connell noted afterwards how tough England will be at home, adding that the competition gets a whole lot harder from there. They couldn’t have put it much better.
Man of the match
Left out of Gatland’s Lions last May, Peter O’Mahony’s star has only gone on to greater heights since. Chosen by Rob Penney to lead Munster in both the Pro12 and the Heineken Cup at the start of the season, the back row ‘s improvement since last season has been unparalleled – leading Munster to the top of the Pro12 and managing to secure a home draw in the last eight of the Heineken Cup. Against Wales on Saturday, the Cork Con man was everywhere, brilliant in the lineout and playing a vital role in managing to stifle the Welsh at the break down and subsequently force the penalties. At the tender age of 23, Ireland will continue to be blessed in this department for quite some time.
Moment of the match
Up until Ireland’s first try towards the end of the first half, Sexton’s performance had been scattered until a moment of brilliance with ball in hand pinned Wales back in their twenty two as Ireland continued to knock on the door. From the resulting lineout, Ireland ruthlessly mauled their way over for a crucial first score to justify the purple patch that had preceded it. In expertly managing to convert the try from a tight angle with a swirling wind, Sexton’s overall performance was transformed, going on to control the game the way he knows so well.