A game that began with rumours of a training ground bust-up between Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball, very nearly ended with Wales coach Wayne Pivac facing a lynching from an entire nation.
This could so easily have been an eighth defeat in 11 games for the under-pressure Kiwi coach, one which would have been acutely embarrassing given they played most of the game against 14 men following Peter O’Mahony’s early red card for the visitors.
That Wales escaped with victory was at least partly thanks to a bizarre finish, Ireland’s replacement fly half Billy Burns kicking the ball dead as he tried to find the corner with a straightforward penalty long after the clock had gone red.
Met with a wall of silence from a deserted Principality Stadium, it was an anti-climactic conclusion to what had been a full-blooded affair featuring four Head Injury Assessments, that early red card for O’Mahony, plus sundry other injuries.
Sexton, one of those to depart to an HIA, expressed sympathy for his stand-in. "As a 10, you have to go for it and get us five metres out,” he said of Burns’ kick. “Sometimes you miss and sometimes you're the hero, but it’s a big difference between 10 and five metres.” It was a generous comment, but no consolation whatsoever for Burns who looked distraught at the final whistle, like a man who rather feared he might not be allowed back into Ireland two years after moving to Ulster and declaring for green.
It was a certainly huge let-off for Wales who will have to play a lot better against silky Scotland at Murrayfield next weekend. This was yet another match in which Pivac’s team struggled with a shonky lineout and failed to create much from open play, even with the extra man.
The final match stats - Ireland bossing possession (64 per cent), territory (68 per cent), metres run (487 to 190), clean breaks (5 to 2) and defenders beaten (23 to 11) - did not make for happy reading for Wales fans.
The lack of a crowd did not help the home side's cause. There was an eery feeling in Cardiff pre-game. This match more than any other in the Six Nations is usually a complete piss-up. Still, we had all the usual pre-match anthems - Men of Harlech and Sosban Fach blaring out over the PA - plus the traditional Principality pyrotechnics. And you could not accuse the players of holding back once the action got underway.
O’Mahony had already blotted his copybook before seeing red after 14 minutes, the Munster back rower penalised for coming in at the side of a ruck early on and Leigh Halfpenny making no mistake from the tee. But Ireland’s efforts to win in Cardiff for the first time since 2013 became exponentially harder following O’Mahony’s dismissal for leading with his shoulder into Tomas Francis’s face.
With head contact such a huge focus, there was only ever going to be one outcome.
Ireland had looked the livelier team up until then, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw combining well in the midfield, Hugo Keenan comfortable at full back and James Lowe an audible presence on the wing.
Wales were thankful to tackling machine Dan Lydiate who had been recalled after two years in the international wilderness. And the hosts doubled their advantage with another penalty after Sexton went in high on Jonny Williams.
But Lydiate departed the field after 10 minutes, the Ospreys man going down with what looked like a knee injury in open play. And his departure appeared to affect Wales’s momentum more than O’Mahony’s red card did Ireland’s.
Two Sexton penalties drew the visitors level before, with minutes remaining until the break, Tadhg Beirne finished off a superb Ireland try. It came from aWales error at their own lineout, their third in the first half, Ken Owens overthrowing and Henshaw snaffling the loose ball, cutting back and then beating Justin Tipuric’s tackle before offloading to Josh van der Flier. The Ireland openside was stopped just short of the line but Beirne’s pick-and-go try was no more than Ireland deserved for their first half superiority.
They were perhaps even a little unfortunate the TMO chose not to review Williams’ head-on-head clash with Ringrose midway through the half, albeit the collision ended the Wales centre’s afternoon.
You could almost hear knives being sharpened for Pivac at half time but Wales just about scraped home thanks to second half tries from wingers George North and Louis Rees-Zammit, the latter making his Six Nations debut.
North’s try featured a particularly nifty Navidi pass out of the back of his hand, while Rees-Zammit’s came when Henshaw, Ireland’s outstanding player on the day, was off the field with an HIA.
Burns, who had replaced Henshaw temporarily, then came on for Sexton, who became the game’s fourth HIA after taking a knee to the head from Tipuric. And his penalty put Ireland within one score. Then came that bizarre finish. The former Gloucester man will not want to watch those final seconds again.
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell took no issue with Peter O'Mahony's sending off, praising the effort put in by the remaining 14 players on the field.
"Obviously [O'Mahony's] gutted as well," Farrell said. "Guys don’t do these things on purpose. It hampers the team and Pete's hurting."
Farrell added that "a Six Nations is not won on the first day." True, but with in-form France next up, Ireland fans will be ruing O’Mahony’s red mist and Burns’ mis-kick.
"We certainly had opportunities to win it," Farrell agreed. "We'll look at a few moments we’ll kick ourselves with – the red card and a couple of decisions that could have gone our way, that'll be reviewed.
"They [players] will feel sorry for themselves for a couple of hours then bring the best version of themselves tomorrow. We have a very good French side coming over next week and we will back ourselves against anyone in the Aviva."
Scoring sequence: 3-0 Halfpenny pen; 6-0 Halfpenny pen; 6-3 Sexton pen; 6-6 Sexton pen; 6-11 Beirne try; 6-13 Sexton con; 11-13 North try; 16-13 Rees-Zammit; 18-13 Halfpenny con; 21-13 Halfpenny pen; 21-16 Burns pen
Wales: L Halfpenny, L Rees-Zammit, G North, J Williams (N Tompkins 24), H Amos (C Sheedy 66); D Biggar, T Williams (G Davies ht); W Jones (R Jones 66), K Owens, T Francis (L Brown 66), A Beard (W Rowlands 66), AW Jones, D Lydiate (J Navidi 12), J Tipuric, T Faletau Replacements: E Dee
Ireland: H Keenan; K Earls ( J Larmour 62), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton (B Burns 70), C Murray (J Gibson Park 72); C Healy (D Kilcoyne 52), R Herring (R Kelleher 72), A Porter (T Furlong), T Beirne, J Ryan (I Henderson 24), P O'Mahony, J van der Flier (W Connors 60), CJ Stander
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Full-time Wales 21 Ireland 16
Wales can't run enough time down to kick for touch and Ireland win possession back with two seconds left.
Tompkins gives away a penalty for a deliberate knock-on and Ireland have a lineout just inside their own half. They build the phases for a few minutes and draw a penalty from North. But Burns misses touch, aiming for the corner! Wales sneak out of here with a win
79 mins Wales 21 Ireland 16
Welsh prop Wyn Jones is awarded the man of the match. He carried the ball well today for some hard yards.
Ireland retain the ball on their own scrum and once again look to build the phases. As they look to build, Larmour knocks it on, under great pressure from Tomkins. Scrum Wales just inside the Irish half, and they're nearly there in Cardiff...
78 mins Wales 21 Ireland 16
It's up to the Welsh big boys to run the clock down, but Ireland stuff the ball in the maul and are awarded the scrum.
77 mins Wales 21 Ireland 16
And win their own ball they do. More than that, Burn pulls on Tipuric's arm and Wales have a penalty. More clock to bleed and more territory to be made.
76 mins Wales 21 Ireland 16
Ireland win their own ball and set up a maul. Lowe looks to run from deep but wales stand strong in midfield.
It's all Ireland as we head into the final four minutes. However, Burns makes a mistake, putting a cross-field kick out on the full. If Wales can win their own ball, something they've struggled with today it must be said, they'll be able to start bleeding the clock.
74 mins Wales 21 Ireland 16
Gibson-Park is on to replace Murray and Kelleher replaces Herring for Ireland.
Wales give away a penalty just inside the Irish half and Ireland will look to kick for touch deep in Wales territory. Can the Welsh hold on? Only six minutes left here
PEN Burns Wales 21 Ireland 16
It's a 5 point game...
72 mins Wales 21 Ireland 13
Time ticking down for Ireland as they have to score twice now. They break off the back of their own scrum and look to move it quickly.
They march up to the Welsh 5 metre line, but Wales hold the line. Alan Wyn Jones is then flagged for not rolling away and Ireland will kick at the posts. Very simple kick this, 5 metres out just to the right of the posts.
While we wait for play to restart...
...here's Rees-Zammit's try.
70 mins Wales 21 Ireland 13
Johnny Sexton is down here for Ireland and the physios are on. Wayne Barnes stops play. It looks like Tipuric has landed on Sexton's head with his knee. Purely accidental but a nasty one for the elder statesman of the Six Nations. He'll have to go get checked.
Sexton looks angry that he's got to go, but Burns is the one to replace him. The medical procedure working well here, despite Sexton's frustration.
That North try,..
68 mins Wales 21 Ireland 13
Wales ring the changes. Brown replaces Francis, and Jones replaces Wyn Jones in the front row. Rowlands is also on to replace captain Alun Wyn Jones.
In the backs, Sheedy comes on for Amos.
PEN Halfpenny Wales 21 Ireland 13
Halfpenny makes it a two score game and the man advantage is beginning to tell for Wales.
66 mins Wales 18 Ireland 13
Wales go long at the lineout and skipper Wyn Jones claims to set them up in midfield. Beirnie is pinged for coming in at the but the ball was there to be played. Harsh, but penalty for Wales right under the posts.
64 mins Wales 18 Ireland 13
Change for Ireland as Larmour replaces Earls. Henshaw also comes back on for Burns after being checked for a head injury.
Wales have dealt with Sexton's kicking much better in this half as Davis has consistently settled under the high ball.
Murray concedes a penalty for obstruction and Wales have a lineout inside Irelands 22. Halfpenny could have had a crack there...
62 mins Wales 18 Ireland 13
Ireland look to respond immediately, and Stander sends Faletau flying as he looks to make a tackle.
Lowe then knocks on during the subsequent phase, Welsh scrum.
CON Halfpenny Wales 18 Ireland 13
No mistake this time from Halfpenny, who drills it in from right on the right touchline. Tough kick that
TRY Rees-Zammit Wales 16 Ireland 13
Wales win their own lineout and look to move it wide this time. After a couple of phases, they move it quickly to Rees-Zammit, who accelerates like a jack-rabbit from almost a standing start and scampers into the corner.
Referee Wayne Barnes checks with the TMO, but Rees-Zammit kept his feet in bounds and Wales have the lead again
58 mins Wales 11 Ireland 13
Wales lose their lineout again, but an Irish mistake means the Welsh have a lineout even closer to the Irish line.
Wales look to set up a maul but the Irish collapse it and the Welsh have a penalty. It's right in the corner, so Wales opt for a lineout over a tricky kick at the posts.
56 mins Wales 11 Ireland 13
After giving away the penalty, Henshaw is taken off to be checked for a head injury and he is replaced by Burns. Ireland make another change in the front row, as Porter is replaced by Furlong.
Ireland are looking to box kick a little more in this second half, rather than using Sexton. Earls gives away a penalty for tackling Davis in mid-air as the Welsh 9 goes up to collect a kick.
54 mins Wales 11 Ireland 13
Sexton stays on, which is a relief for Ireland fans.
From the lineout, Ireland look to build the phases again, methodically working from flank to flank. However, after 12 phases, Henshaw comes in from the side and gives away a penalty.
52 mins Wales 11 Ireland 13
Change in the front row for Ireland. Kilcoyne replaces Healy.
Wales turn Ireland over in their own half, but Hamos sends the kick straight into touch and Ireland will have a lineout near the Welsh 22.
Sexton is now down with an injury.
50 mins Wales 11 Ireland 13
Halfpenny misses the conversion.
TRY North Wales 11 Ireland 13
Wales are back in it!.
The seven man scrum works well for Ireland, but Sexton throws a forward-pass and Wales turn them over. From the turnover, Wales go left for two phases before cutting back to North on the blind side.
The centre throws a dummy to send Henderson the wrong way, allowing him a gap in the line to burst through, which he does with aplomb. Game on!
48 mins Wales 6 Ireland 13
Wales are switching to a five man lineout as they look to regain dominance on their own throw. They win the lineout, but Faletau knocks on as Wales look to build the phases.
46 mins Wales 6 Ireland 13
Halfpenny and Sexton exchange kicks as Ireland look to pin Wales back inside their own 22.
A high tackle on Hamos gives Wales a penalty at their own 10 metre line.
44 mins Wales 6 Ireland 13
George North is down, with what looks like a bloody eye. Physios are out quickly to mop it up.
Wales give away yet another penalty for coming in at the side at the breakdown.
42 mins Wales 6 Ireland 13
Ireland turn Wales over twice in quick succession in the tackle as they look to continue the pressure.
Second half kick-off
Dan Biggar gets us back underway.
One change at half-time, Gareth Davis has come on to replace Williams at scrum-half.
Here's that Beirnie try...
Ireland dominate statistically
Wales, despite their numerical advantage, were seond-best for much of the first half and the stats bear that out. They made a third as many metres as the Irish (66 to 170) on half as many carries (15 to 28) and had to make 30 tackles to the Irish 11.
Ireland absolutely dominated territorially as well, with just 1 per cent of the first half action taking place in their own 22. 10 per cent occurred inside the Welsh 22.
The Dan Lydiate injury looks to have been more impactful than the O'Mahony red card.
Half-time Wales 6 Ireland 13
A tremendous response from Ireland after the early red card. Wales have been sloppy defensively, giving away too many penalties and losing too many of their own lineouts.
Tommy Williams looks to have pulled a hamstring here and he is limping off at the half. More misery for Wales...
CON Sexton Wales 6 Ireland 13
Well well well, 13 unanswered points from Ireland and they're ahead with just a minute left in the half.
TRY Beirnie Wales 6 Ireland 11
Lowe is helping Sexton out here, sending a booming kick into the Welsh half. The Irish then steal the Welsh lineout and they're off. Two missed tackles in the midfield for Wales after Henshaw changes direction allow for him to offload to van der Flier.
The flanker is tackled a metre short, but Beirnie picks up quickly and jumps over the line for a try.
PEN Sexton Wales 6 Ireland 6
We're all square with five minutes left until half time. Ireland have reacted superbly to going down to 14.
34 mins Wales 6 Ireland 3
Ireland keep possession off their scrum and keep attacking. They have a penalty inside the 22 after George North holds on to the ball for too long while jackling over a ruck. Sexton will have a chance to level things up.
32 mins Wales 6 Ireland 3
Ireland continue to drive Wales back into their own half, recycling the ball well at the breakdown.
After 20 phases, the Welsh steal it and look to be away after a delicious back-door pass by North, but it's marginally forward. It was nearly perfect.
PEN Sexton Wales 6 Ireland 3
Ireland halve the deficit, after Sexton buries a central kick from about 40 metres out. Since the red card, you have to say Ireland have been the better team and dominated the territory, utilising the wand of Sexton's right boot.
28 mins Wales 6 Ireland 0
But the Welsh steal and the opportunity is lost for Ireland.
Ireland get another penalty after Navidi came in off his feet. Sexton will kick this one.
26 mins Wales 6 Ireland 0
Penalty for Ireland inside the Welsh half after Owens doesn't release. Sexton opts to kick for touch and play the territory game, pinning the Welsh back on their own 5, Irish throw.
24 mins Wales 6 Ireland 0
Ooof it was a nasty one for Henshaw. Johnny Williams flew up and hit him with a head-on-head blow. Williams is off to be checked for the next ten minutes.
24 mins Wales 6 Ireland 0
Ireland aren't going away here, and they will use Sexton's kicking ability to keep the Welsh pinned back in.
Ireland are building phases but a little knock-on from Sexton kills some good momentum they were building.
Now Henshaw is down with a head injury for Ireland.
22 mins Wales 6 Ireland 0
Henshaw has joined the scrum to make up the Irish numbers. They wheel the scrum left and look to attack through the Welsh middle, but the defensive line is strong.
Sexton opts to stab a grubber through and Wales will have a lineout at their own 5 metre line. Ireland can't steal this one though, and Wales kick clear.
20 mins Wales 6 Ireland 0
Ireland are facing an uphill battle here, Andy Farrell looks pensive beneath his face mask.
But from the kickoff, North knocks on after a poor pass from Falatau and Ireland have a scrum on the Welsh 22.
PEN Halfpenny Wales 6 Ireland 0
No mistake again. He drills it low and hard from about 40 metres out.
18 mins Wales 3 Ireland 0
Wales have a penalty advantage after a high tackle as they look to speed things up at the breakdown and move it through the hands.
They're switching from flank to flank with fluidity but as they look to sneak down the right their hands fail them. We're coming back for a penalty that's well within Halfpenny's range.
16 mins Wales 3 Ireland 0
Ireland are having to reset their game plan but do well to steal another Welsh lineout.
15 mins Wales 3 Ireland 0
Peter O'Mahony is gone for Ireland, it's an early red card. His left arm is very high as he joins the ruck and his elbow slams into Francis's head. He can have no complaints, it was a chicken-wing shot right to the temple. Ireland are down to 14.
14 mins Wales 3 Ireland 0
Strong running from North so far in the Welsh centre as he looks to attack the Irish defensive line. He's stopped by Sexton, but Welsh think North can have some success here early.
Unfortunately, he knocks on this time and it will be an Irish scrum.
13 mins Wales 3 Ireland 0
Well I said it didn't look good for Lydiate and he's lasted only a couple of minutes more before his knee buckles again. He'll be replaced by Josh Navidi.
13 mins Wales 3 Ireland 0
From the scrum, Wales look to attack down the right, and a grubber finds touch inside the Irish 22.
Ireland secure their own ball and kick away from the back of the maul to safety.
12 mins Wales 3 Ireland 0
A high kick is knocked on by Earls at the halfway line and Wales have another scrum.
Dan Lydiate is down after chasing the kick to Earls and it doesn't look good for the flanker. The trainers are on taking a look at his right knee. It looks like he's made accidental contact with his own man and twisted it badly.
He's going to try and run it off for now. Scrum Wales.
10 mins Wales 3 Ireland 0
It's been a physical battle to start. The first scrum is a Welsh put-in after a knock-on at the lineout, and the Welsh front row stands strong against an Irish counter-push.
8 mins Wales 3 Ireland 0
Ireland once again seek to use the box kick to get a territorial foothold, but Wales remain strong in the breakdown and recycle possession.
Ireland are looking to attack with runners off Sexton's outside shoulder and build ten phases of play as they advance past the Wales 22. A grubber from Henshaw ends up finding touch, but Ireland steal the lineout.
PEN Halfpenny Wales 3 Ireland 0
It's a simple kick for Wales full-back, in front of the posts just 30 metres out, and he makes no mistake to give Wales an early lead.
4 mins Wales 0 Ireland 0
Ireland look to build through the hands as the advance through Wels territory but give away a penalty for obstruction. However, Dan Biggar commits an early mistake and fails to find touch.
Wales then turn Ireland over in their own territory and good hands allow then to advance up to the Irish 22. Ireland are then penalised for coming in from the side and Halfpenny will have a kick at goal.
2 mins Wales 0 Ireland 0
Ireland kick things off and we have a couple of box kicks from either side early doors as they fight for territory.
Both defensive lines look solid and well-drilled to start, forcing both nine's to kick.
And, a couple of minutes late, we're underway in Cardiff!
A moment of silence
Before things get underway, the two sides will hold a moment of silence to honour Captain Tom Moore, the nation's sweetheart, and all the lives lost during this pandemic.
The two sides are also taking a stand against racism, as unacceptable in sport as it is in wider society.
The two teams are making their way out on to the pitch and the anthems are about to be sung. We are very nearly ready for kickoff in a freezing windy Cardiff.
The roof is open at the Principality Stadium this afternoon, so expect the wind to play a factor this afternoon, possibly wreaking havoc on the kicking game.
Here are all the essential details you need, with kick-off less than 15 minutes away:
The away side has failed to win any of the last seven Six Nations meetings (D1, L6).
Ireland have won their last four Test matches versus Wales, their best run since 2004.
Wales made an unrivalled 89 handling errors in the 2020 Six Nations, including the most knock-ons (35).
Ireland have won six of their last nine Tests, but every victory has come at home.
Last time out...
The last time these sides met was in the Autumn Nations Cup last November, when Ireland proved to be too good for Wayne Pivac's struggling Wales.
Ireland ran out comfortable 32-9 winners, as Wales produced an incredibly sloppy display that saw them concede 18 penalties.
It was the fourth consecutive time the Irish have beaten the Welsh, a streak they will look to continue today. You can catch up on that result here.
Wales starting XV: L Halfpenny; L Rees-Zammit, G North, J Williams, H Amos; D Biggar, T Williams; W Jones, K Owens, T Francis; A Beard, A Wyn Jones (c); D Lydiate, J Tipuric, T Faletau
Replacements: E Dee, R Jones, L Brown, W Rowlands, J Navidi, G Davies, C Sheedy, N Tompkins
Ireland starting XV: H Keenan; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton (c), C Murray; C Healy, R Herring, A Porter; T Bernie, J Ryan; P O'Mahony, J van der Flier, CJ Stander
Replacements: R Kelleher, D Kilcoyne, T Furlong, I Henderson, W Connors, J Gibson Park, B Burns, J Larmour
Hello and Welcome!
Good afternoon everyone, Marcus here to take you through the final game of Six Nations opening weekend.
After yesterday’s shock result at Twickenham, and a far more predictable outcome in Rom, Wales and Ireland, both in the early stages of rebuilding jobs, complete the Six Nations' opening weekend in Cardiff.
Wales had a torrid time last year, finishing fifth in the Six Nations and Nations Cup and are on a run of four successive defeats against the Irish.
Josh Adams is suspended for Wales' first two games after breaching Covid-19 protocols after attending a gender reveal party to celebrate his partner's pregnancy at another family member's home on Sunday. As a result, George North starts in the centre, with Hallam Amos called into the team on the wing.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones is fit and is expected to be sporting a black eye after allegedly being punched by Jake Ball during an incident late this week.
2020 was always likely to be a tough initiation for coach Wayne Pivac as he sought to instil his way of playing on a side that enjoyed so much success under Warren Gatland, but with the regional sides performing so consistently poorly he does not have the greatest pool to select from.
There is a similar feel to the Ireland team, where coach Andy Farrell seems torn between trying to forge a new identity while clinging on to his ageing Conor Murray-Johnny Sexton half-back combination for as long as possible.
Sexton has been declared fit for the match and will start at fly-half. Tadhg Beirne and Josh van der Flier are two notable returning players in the pack. Beirne will partner James Ryan in the second row while Peter O'Mahony switches to blindside flanker, with Van der Flier coming into the back row.
James Lowe has been selected by Ireland head coach Andy Farrell on the wing ahead of Jordan Larmour.