George North rebound sees Wales end Ireland’s Six Nations hopes
Coach Howley’s decision to stick with lineup beaten by Scotland is vindicated
Wales coach Rob Howley’s courageous call to avoid tinkering with his stuttering side was vindicated after they notched up an emphatic 22-9 victory over Ireland in a thrilling Six Nations match.
Fans, pundits and media turned on Wales players and coaches after they leaked 20 unanswered points in their defeat by the Scots, which followed a loss to England after an opening victory over Italy.
But interim head coach Howley refused to bow to pressure for wholesale changes and picked an unaltered team to play the Irish, notably retaining much-criticised winger George North.
North duly stepped up several levels to repay the faith Howley showed him by crossing for a well-taken brace of tries.
A third try by Jamie Roberts, with Leigh Halfpenny booting the rest of the points, saw the Welsh ease past an Ireland team that had Jonny Sexton sin binned and had only three penalties to show for their efforts.
“We knew there would be a reaction and against one of the best sides in rugby you have to play like that both with and without the ball,” Howley said. “I’m delighted for the players, they have taken a lot of stick and we beat Ireland emphatically.”
Asked about North, who undoubtedly had his worst game for Wales in the defeat by Scotland, Howley said: “When you praise them too much they sit back, if you criticise them too much they go into their shell, so it’s a fine balance.
“He’s a quality world-class player,” the former Wales scrum half said. “We all have bad games and George was first to put his hand up after the Scotland game and said ‘I needed to be better’.
“We want him on the ball as often as possible.”
Calling the high-octane, bruising game at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium “a great advert for Six Nations rugby”, Howley said it was an “outstanding 80-minute performance” by a seasoned team of experienced players who had already “been there and done it”.
“They were very honest in their appraisal of the 15-20 minutes of the second half of the Scotland game and the hurt we all felt. They wanted to go out and give a performance they could be proud of.
“They’ve beaten one of best sides in world rugby, three tries to nil. I’m really proud of the players, they deserve a lot of credit for what’s happened over the last couple of weeks.
“They’re a very good team and don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt acknowledged that his team “knew how under-pressure Wales were to perform at home”.
“They played very well, their set piece was strong and they defended well,” the Kiwi said, calling a 39th-minute yellow card for Jonny Sexton a turning point.
Wales came out for the second-half on the front foot, North crossing for his second try when Sexton was off the pitch.
“Wales were pretty clever in what they did and it made a real challenge for us,” Schmidt said, lamenting a correctly called penalty against Robbie Henshaw for joining a promising maul illegally.
“That lineout drive at 15-9 [for a try] and you convert, you go one point ahead and suddenly they’re chasing us. It’s all about very fine margins, you’ve got to get them on your side.”
But Schmidt insisted that Ireland, whose Six Nations title hopes would have continued with a win, would not “wallow in our own self-pity”.
“Unfortunately it means we’re no longer in the hunt. But we can still finish in the top half of the Six Nations, which is still something very important for us,” he said.