Ireland gave head coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best the perfect farewell at the Aviva Stadium with a confidence-boosting 19-10 win over Wales on Saturday.
Both men will relinquish their respective roles after the Rugby World Cup and they toasted their final match in Dublin by steering Ireland to the top of World Rugby’s rankings for the first time.
The home side though were left to sweat a possible knee injury for wing Keith Earls, amid a solid victory where Rob Kearney, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan all bagged tries.
Rhys Patchell’s third concussion in a year, meanwhile, handed Wales a big World Cup injury scare.
Here’s the key talking points from Dublin:
Another improved display for the Men in Green.
They showed lots of energy and intricacy around the ball carrier, and stepped up their performance levels again after last week’s 22-17 win over the same opposition.
Schmidt’s side demonstrated some positive and fast back line play, slick passing, strong defence (they missed only eight of their 115 tackles), good kicking variety and ran good angles to make it difficult for Wales to stop them getting over the gain line.
They built phases, produced some strong carries from CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Ryan, and looked back to their fluid best in attack.
There were doubts creeping into this team about their form in recent weeks, but they look to have timed it right. It wasn’t a perfect display by any means – with the lineout still creaking – but certainly a lot better than previous weeks.
It was controlled and clinical, and one that sets them up nicely ahead of their World Cup opener against Scotland on September 22.
WALES TIRE OUT
While simple rugby worked well for Ireland, Wales – after a promising start – were unable to gain a foothold for large parts of the contest.
Despite producing some productive moments in attack and defence in the first half, Wales couldn’t convert their possession and territory into points.
Hadleigh Parkes steamed through for their only try of the game on 31 minutes and at that point the visitors looked full of confidence.
But some uncharacteristic weak defending and poor decision making in attack saw Wales struggle.
Ireland were methodical and picked the right options, starved Wales of possession and that is psychologically very tiring for any defence, especially for one that is generally flawless over the ball.
One of the positives for Warren Gatland when he dissects the video over the coming days was the accuracy of the set-piece. From the lineout, Wales won all eight of their throws, and from the scrum they won all three.
Wales looked fatigued as the game wore on and, coupled with a number of poor refereeing decisions, lacked that cutting edge that saw them soar to Six Nations success earlier this year.
For Gatland, it’s all about the performance of their four warm-up matches over the results and he will study the games endlessly to have his team primed and firing for Georgia in 16 days time. In a World Cup year, the only thing that matters is the World Cup itself.
Ryan may only be in his third year in professional rugby but Ireland play so much better when the 23-year-old is on the field.
Kearney produced a majestic display and would have been the name pursed on most people’s lips for man-of-the-match, but Ryan shone brightest at the Aviva Stadium, setting the tone for his team in defence and at the breakdown.
The Leinster man scored a try, made 10 carries and 10 tackles and was always looking to get involved at any opportunity.
He continuously purrs with confidence and is a future Ireland captain in the making.
The argument can be made that he is potentially Ireland’s most important player already.
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