It seems Wales may require more than the return of Gats to solve their problems. The Warren Gatland Era 2.0 began in disappointing fashion, beaten comprehensively in Wales’s famously passionate arena by a swaggeringly confident Ireland team, who open their campaign with this bonus-point win.
With Gatland back in charge and some of his finest warriors of yore out on the field, there were even thoughts – dreams maybe – of the underdogs snarling enough in their lair to put one over the visitors, looking all sleek and shiny up there at the top of the world rankings. The closed roof of the kennel was full to bursting beforehand with the songs of its faithful.
But that sheen of the Irish looks to run ever more deeply than the surface. They were in a different class. If anything, they will wonder why they won by only the 24 points, given they were up by the same amount by half-time.
This may be the era of the comeback, but there was to be no such drama here. Wales responded to the flatness of their first half with a bit more bite at the start of the second, Liam Williams, one of their better players, scoring a fine try to pull the score back to 27-10 a few minutes after the break. Which is all well and good, but when you are already three tries down it means only so much. Ireland comfortably saw out the rest of the match – and scored a fourth try to claim that bonus point with ease, as if it had occurred they probably should.
They may have lost three key players in the week – one of them, Jamison Gibson-Park, on the day itself – but that class of theirs is so integral now the disruption does not seem to bother them. None of their three tries in the first half will necessarily feature in a highlights reel, but the first two were the end product of approach work that was so dominant and confident there never seemed any danger of their losing.
The snap of the handling, the lightness of the footwork and the power, the sheer power, at the point of contact were too much for Wales and will probably prove too much for most teams in this sport. Caelan Doris scored the first in the third minute, but we had already seen them stretch the home side down the left, before claiming a lineout and working through those one-out runners in so peerless a fashion. Johnny Sexton’s inside ball to James Ryan was enough variation to throw the fringe defence, allowing Doris to blast through the rest of it.
Ryan turned try-scorer himself a few minutes later, from more close-quarter pressure, this time after a smart mini-break by Hugo Keenan. And that was 14-0. We still awaited the 10th minute. When James Lowe intercepted during a rare passage of Welsh coherence to sprint home from his 22 line at the end of the first quarter, it was clear the game was up even then.
Tellingly, Wales’s most dangerous players in that first half were the youngsters, Rio Dyer and Joe Hawkins. Dyer in particular managed to shine despite it all. He nearly had a solo try against the run of play, but man of the match Keenan managed to scramble back to win the race to his chip ahead. Wales’s one score of the half, a penalty by Dan Biggar, followed shortly. Wales were struggling to make tell what little ball they could secure, certainly in comparison with the Irish masterclass of the first quarter, and their penalty count was rocketing.
Download the Guardian app from the iOS App Store on iPhone or the Google Play store on Android by searching for 'The Guardian'.
If you already have the Guardian app, make sure you’re on the most recent version.
In the Guardian app, tap the Menu button at the bottom right, then go to Settings (the gear icon), then Notifications.
Turn on sport notifications.
In the third quarter, though, it was the Irish penalty count that surged. Wales sent two in a row to the corner, and Williams finished a slick move from the second lineout.
Any thoughts of a comeback never convinced. Wales’s problems in the final quarter were compounded by the yellow card shown to Williams for not managing to get out of the way when Sexton come at him in headlong fashion. Sexton was hurt in the incident, but his dead leg is not thought to be serious.
In Williams’s absence, Ireland clicked into gear to run Wales through the phases with all the snap they had shown in the first quarter. Dan Sheehan streaked down the right with unseemly pace for a hooker in the last 10 minutes to set up position. When Craig Casey put Josh van der Flier through a huge gap for a stroll to the posts, we were simply reminded of the gulf in class.