Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations Championship title hopes were dented with a 22-9 loss against Wales at the Principlaity Stadium, Cardiff, last night.
The Irish remain second in the table, but if England defeat Scotland on Saturday afternoon, they will retain the Championship irrespective of meeting Ireland in Dublin next weekend.
However, if the Scots win at Twickenham, the title race will be wide open once again.
In an enthralling encounter in Cardiff, Ireland stamped their intent right from the off when Garry Ringrose repelled Wales talisman Alun Wyn Jones in the tackle, to allow Jack McGrath to force an early turnover.
Rhys Webb’s high tackle on Henshaw handed Ireland the chance for first blood, and Johnny Sexton duly opened the scoring from the tee.
Wales escaped punishment after Dan Biggar’s questionable pass was smartly intercepted by Sexton.
Fly-half Biggar had already been fortunate to avoid an interception when Sean O’Brien could not quite lay a hand to another risky flat pass.
Wales attacked with bludgeon if not quite sufficient clarity of purpose, but were undone by a careless offside after Jonathan Davies’ knock-on.
A bullocking CJ Stander run put Ireland back on the front foot, but the visitors kicked for the corner instead of at goal - and promptly lost the lineout deep in Wales’ 22.
Liam Williams’ cute grubber forced Sexton to mop up at the back, with Ireland’s pivot copping a bang to the head as Davies challenged for the ball.
The British and Irish Lions star departed for a head injury assessment, temporarily replaced by Ulster’s Paddy Jackson.
After Davies was cleared of any wrongdoing in the challenge on Sexton, Wales scored a blockbuster try straight from a lineout.
Webb proved the architect, floating the scoring pass out to George North, following Leigh Halfpenny’s break.
So maligned for his defence in defeat to Scotland, here North provided the ideal riposte.
Halfpenny missed the conversion, but Wales still led 5-3 at the end of the first quarter.
Jackson booted Ireland back into the lead from a penalty after the visitors failed with two driven lineouts, before Sexton returned to play following his head injury check.
No sooner had Ireland’s premier fly-half returned to action than their influential scrum-half suffered an injury scare. Conor Murray soldiered on after extended physio treatment but was clearly impeded by an apparent arm injury.
Sexton then cynically denied Wales a try by killing the ball on the tryline, receiving a yellow card for his troubles. Wales had to settle for a Halfpenny penalty to leave Rob Howley’s men leading 8-6 at the break.
Ireland patched up Murray for the second half but the Munster man’s struggles continued; the 27-year-old could hardly pass the ball due to his arm complaint.
A loose O’Brien pass let Wales back into possession, and the hosts punished Ireland again.
Webb punted deep, chased well and forced Murray into touch just shy of his own goal-line.
Wales drove the lineout, Webb broke blind and sent North in at the corner. Halfpenny’s conversion pushed Wales into a more commanding 15-6 lead.
Murray’s pretence at full fitness then finally came to an end, with Ireland completing the long-overdue substitution as Kieran Marmion joined the fray.
Ireland boss Schmidt may have generated full trust in Paddy Jackson, but is yet to develop the same feelings for Connacht man Marmion and it hurt Ireland as Murray had been forced to play on though clearly hampered.
Ireland negotiated the rest of Sexton’s sin-bin without further damage and promptly forced themselves back onto the front foot through accurate phase play.
The visitors ploughed through 26 recycles in fact, before winning a penalty.
Ireland kicked for the corner, not at goal, but again found no way through Wales’ gritty defence.
Liam Williams’ high tackle on Ringrose handed Sexton a plum shot at goal however, and Ireland’s fly-half cut Wales’ lead to six points.
Biggar struck a post from a drop-goal effort to leave Wales leading 15-9 on the hour.
Ireland looked to have scored a try through Best, but it was ruled out for obstruction at the driving maul from Henshaw - it was the turning point in the game.
Wales secured the win with a try through replacement Jamie Roberts, converted by Halfpenny.