So Ireland are now red-hot favourites for the title. This breathless bonus point win over Wales, combined with England’s defeat at Murrayfield where they failed to claim even a losing bonus point, has seen to that.
But what an extraordinary way for it to happen. If you had predicted that Joe Schmidt’s team would score five tries, enjoy two thirds of the possession, three quarters of the territory, concede just four penalties, and still go within a whisker of losing, you would have been declared daft.
Wales were like the zombie that just won’t die at the Aviva Stadium.
Ireland had over 80 per cent possession at one point midway through the second half, when they led 27-13. Yet somehow Wales kept coming back – and very nearly nicked it at the end.
With the score 30-27 to Ireland, the clock in the red, and Wales on the attack, it took an intercepted try from Jacob Stockdale to finally, finally kill the visitors off.
It was a strange match. Gareth Davies had warned in the build-up that Wales would be going for a bonus-point win in Warren Gatland’s 100th match in charge, so confident were they after their win over Scotland and their near-miss at Twickenham. In the event they hardly touched the ball.
Ireland, despite being shorn of three Lions in Tadgh Furlog, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw, were dominant for, particularly at close quarters. But they were their own worst enemies.
Ironically, Johnny Sexton was one of the chief culprits. Ireland’s fly half and talisman had missed the first part of Friday’s captain’s run having treatment to his back but the Aviva breathed a collective sigh of relief when his name was read out in the confirmed team.
The 32 year-old made a very sloppy start, though, leaving eight points on the field in the first quarter alone, with two bad penalty misses and one missed conversion. He also had a ball ripped off him in contact and later eschewed a penalty in favour of running the ball.
True, he also set up Jacob Stockdale’s seventh minute try with a lovely flat pass, and produced a fine break and offload to Rob Kearney. But this was not vintage, ice-in-the-veins Johnny.
Schmidt said he was impressed by his No 10s heart, and passing, if not his accuracy off the tee. “To use a golfing analogy, he was great with his irons but didn’t have his putting game,” he said.
While Sexton was stuttering – unable to convert Irish dominance into points – Wales were grinding their gears.
Halfpenny showed Sexton how to do it with an early penalty from 45metres, but it was a rearguard action as Gatland’s team struggled to get out of their own 22m. Even when Sexton missed, Wales handed back possession. Stockdale’s first try – and seventh for Ireland in as many games – came after Scott Williams threw a forward pass after Sexton’s kick hit the upright.
On the rare occasions Wales did get up the pitch, they took advantage. After 20mins of Ireland pressure Hadleigh Parks carried into the Irish 22m, Aaron Shingler took it on, Rob
Evans spilled it, and then Davies skipped through the middle of Stockdale and James Ryan. Then Halfpenny stepped up to make it 13-5 to Wales after Rob Kearney accidentally kicked the ball out of Dan Biggar’s hands following an excellent leap and catch from the Wales No 10.
It was an extraordinary scoreline considering the balance of play but Ireland kept plugging away.
Keith Earls became increasingly influential, while Chris Farrell, in for the injured Henshaw fully deserved his man-of-the-match award.
Sexton reduced the arrears with a penalty before Bundee Aki – hitherto anonymous – scored on the stroke of half-time, stretching over the line to hand Ireland a deserved 15-13 lead.
Ireland picked up where they left off with Dan Leavy and Cian Healy scoring to secure what had seemed before the game like an unlikely bonus point; both from close. 27-13.
Wales, though, refused to die. And as the replacements began to enter the field, so the game began to open up and Ireland’s grip loosened. Shingler went over in the corner after the ball was spun right to bring Wales back to within a converted try.
Ireland thought they had finally killed Wales off with a late Sexton penalty – following a huge Irish scrum after 74 minutes – but the visitors came back, scoring yet again through Steff Evans after good work from Scott Williams, who took on two players before offloading to Navidi.
In the final minute the tension ratcheted up another few notches, Wales won a lineout on the halfway and tried to run it, only for Gareth Anscombe to throw an intercept pass when he had a huge overlap out wide, the ball picked off by a grateful Stockdale.
The stake had finally been driven through the zombie’s heart and Warren Gatland, when asked who he thought might win a grand slam decider at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day, his answer was to the point: “I don’t care.”
In the event, England lost. Ireland are edging towards this title, though Schmidt won’t entertain thoughts of that St Patrick’s Day meeting just yet. “We don’t look beyond the next game [Scotland],” he said. “It’s boring but that’s what we have to do.”
Scoring sequence: 0-3 Halfpenny pen; 5-3 Stockdale try; 5-8 Davies try; 5-10 Halfpenny con; 5-13 Halfpenny pen; 8-13 Sexton pen; 13-13 Aki try; 15-13 Sexton con; 20-13 Leavy try; 22-13 Sexton con; 27-13 Healy try; 27-18 Shingler try; 27-20 Sexton con; 30-20 Sexton pen; 30-25 Evans try; 30-27 Halfpenny con; 35-27 Stockdale try; 37-27 Carbery con.
Ireland: R Kearney, K Earls (F McFadden 64), C Farrell, B Aki, J Stockdale, J Sexton (J Carbery 77), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 64), R Best (S Cronin 69), A Porter (John Ryan 65), James Ryan, D Toner (Q Roux 74), P O’Mahony (J Conan 66), D Leavy, CJ Stander.
Wales: L Halfpenny, L Williams (G North 64), S Williams, H Parkes, S Evans, D Biggar (G Anscombe 64), G Davies; R Evans (W Jones 56), K Owens (E Dee 56), S Lee (T Francis 56), C Hill (B Davies 64), AW Jones, A Shingler, J Navidi, R Moriarty (J Tipuric 64).
Referee: G Jackson (NZRU).
Six Nations table
Here's how the table looks after a barnstormer in Dublin. Ireland are top, Wales still third.
Great effort from Wales
Delight for Ireland
Full-time, Ireland 37-27 Wales
Ireland are still on for the Grand Slam and deservedly so, having played some fantastic rugby in spells.
Wales leave the Aviva with their heads held high, however. The result was really decided in the third quarter, when Ireland asserted their dominance and forced Wales to chase the game.
TRY, David Stockdale! Ireland 37-27 Wales, 80 mins
Ah, there we have it.
Some desperate passing from Wales allows David Stockdale to make the interception, sprinting home triumphantly to win the game. Joey Carbery makes the conclusive kick.
Ireland 30-27 Wales, 79 mins
Wales attack, attack, attack but it's a huge ask at this point.
Massive tension at the Aviva! What a match this has turned out to be.
TRY, Steff Evans! Ireland 30-27 Wales, 77 mins
But wait a minute!
Wales play from left to right, then right to left, before a great offload from Scott Williams (via Josh Navidi) allows Evans to roar home. Halfpenny adds two points with the boot to make it a three-point game.
Ireland 30-20 Wales, 76 mins
Wales have a scrum in the middle of the park, which Ireland absolutely tear to pieces. Substitute lock Quinn Roux gets particular praise in the ITV studio, having helped initiate a monstrous drive.
Conor Murray steps up to take the decisive kick. It goes over. That should be that.
Ireland 27-20 Wales, 72 mins
George North, on as a substitute, terrorises the Irish defence out on the right before a knock on gives the men in green a brief reprieve.
Wales are growing in confidence here, but have they left it too late?
Ireland 27-20 Wales, 70 mins
Wales decide attack is the best form of defence and pass their way out of their own 22, Steff Evans bursting forwards into space before eventually going for a kick and chase.
Evans wins a penalty after bringing down the covering Rob Kearney, who hangs on too long in the tackle.
Ireland 27-20 Wales, 68 mins
Ireland are back on the Welsh five-metre line after Johnny Sexton takes a quick-tap penalty, charging at the corner and throwing a dummy before he's belatedly brought down.
Luckily for Wales, a knock on stops the relentless Irish machine in its tracks.
TRY, Aaron Shingler! Ireland 27-20 Wales, 63 mins
Wales have the ball once more and Steff Evans goes on a screaming run up the flank. The visitors work the ball from left to right and create a massive overlap, Aaron Shingler finishing off an out-of-the-blue attack.
Halfpenny makes the kick from almost on the touchline. Wales are back in it, but need to find more where that came from.
Ireland 27-13 Wales, 60 mins
Wales have the ball in hand and go on the attack, which is a rare sight this half. Having made a real game of it in the first 40 minutes the visitors have struggled to impose themselves since half-time.
An unforced error from Ross Moriarty dissipates Wales' momentum. Ireland have it back.
Ireland 27-13 Wales, 57 mins
Keith Earls, who has been fantastic all game, kicks the ball halfway down the pitch and almost profits from his football skills with a try.
In the end, a cruel bounce takes the ball away from him. He'd easily won the foot race with his Welsh counterparts.
TRY, Cian Healy! Ireland 27-13 Wales, 54 mins
There's a turnover from the line-out but, having forced Wales to ground under pressure, Ireland have a five-metre scrum instead.
Ireland are irresistible from close distance and this time it's Cian Healy who grinds over. Sexton misses the kick from a tight angle, the ball wavering in flight.
Ireland 22-13 Wales, 48 mins
Johnny Sexton nearly catches Wales out with a cross-field kick to Keith Earls, who leaps with Steff Evans in acres of space and almost wins the ball.
Evans is tackled into touch. Ireland have the line-out.
TRY, Dan Leavy! Ireland 22-13 Wales, 45 mins
Well, the hosts didn't have to wait long.
Murray manages to recycle the ball and, from a ruck right in front of the posts, Dan Leavy picks and drives over the line. Sexton kicks the conversion.
Ireland 15-13 Wales, 44 mins
So nearly a try for Ireland!
Keith Earls gets away down the right and throws a pass inside to Conor Murray, but the ball pings up into the air and he only just hangs onto it in the tackle.
Ireland 15-13 Wales, 42 mins
In a bold move, Rob Kearney attempts a drop goal from 50 metres early on.
It floats aimlessly into the Welsh half. Kearney scratches his head.
Teams back out
As ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ blasts out over the tannoy, the two sides prepare to resume hostilities at the Aviva.
Ireland kick to Wales.
Josh Navidi top tackler
From the defensive side of things, Josh Navidi has been the standout player of the game so far. He made 12 tackles in the first half, more than anyone else.
Offensively, Keith Earls and Bundee Aki lead when it comes to defenders beaten with two apiece.
Half-time, Ireland 15-13 Wales
While Ireland have generally looked more dangerous with the ball, Wales ran them close in every department in the first half and are unlucky to go back to the dressing rooms two points behind.
It's still anyone's game at the Aviva, with Ireland's Grand Slam credentials facing a stern test.
TRY, Bundee Aki! Ireland 15-13 Wales, 40 mins
Wales will be gutted with that.
After a dogged, last-ditch defence, Bundee Aki is the man to finally inch over the line and score. Sexton kicks the conversion and Ireland go in ahead at half-time.
Ireland 8-13 Wales, 38 mins
Aaron Shingler gives away a penalty for offside and Sexton boots it deep into the Welsh 22.
Ireland pick and carry time and time again through the forwards, poking and probing Wales' defence. Sexton almost bursts through but is tackled and Ireland end up camped on the Welsh try line.
Ireland 8-13 Wales, 35 mins
Having played advantage for Ireland, referee Glen Jackson brings it back for an earlier infringement.
Sexton, at the fourth time of asking, kicks it.
Ireland 5-13 Wales, 34 mins
There's an enormous roar from the crowd as Keith Earls makes a clean break, but Halfpenny comes across as cover and Earls is brought down.
Ireland punch hole after hole in the Welsh defence, Chris Farrell taking them up to the five-metre line. Cian Healy carries to within inches of a score, but is judged to have been held up.
Ireland 5-13 Wales, 31 mins
Dan Leavy makes an expert turnover from the arms of Steff Evans on the right flank, but Wales win the ball back.
The visitors get a much more kickable penalty up the pitch and Halfpenny makes no mistake this time.
Ireland 5-10 Wales, 26 mins
Ireland and Wales exchange penalties in quick succession on the halfway line, the hosts giving away the second after a block without the ball.
Halfpenny opts for the posts from just inside the Welsh half, which is ambitious. Too much so, as it turns out, with the kick falling just short.
TRY, Gareth Davies! Ireland 5-10 Wales, 20 mins
Brilliant from Wales.
Having come forward in a red wave, Gareth Davies runs a diagonal line at the Irish defence before suddenly changing direction and slicing through to touch down. Halfpenny makes the kick.
Ireland 5-3 Wales, 18 mins
After Wales have kicked some territory of their own Ireland run the ball through the backs, Sexton twice threatening a clean break and stretching the Welsh defence wafer-thin.
Wales eventually win a turnover and go on the counter. It's exciting stuff, this.
Ireland 5-3 Wales, 16 mins
Groans in the crowd turn to a round of applause as Sexton grubbers through the Wales defence, finding touch deep in the Welsh 22.
The visitors win their line-out and clear, but Ireland have ball in hand again. The men in green have had 60% possession and 74% territory so far.
Ireland 5-3 Wales, 14 mins
Ireland come back at Wales and Keith Earls bombs forward. Rob Evans hangs on too long in the tackle and the hosts have yet another penalty.
Sexton misses again! That's three in a row now.
Ireland 5-3 Wales, 10 mins
Ireland go for a rolling maul from the line-out but, in attempting to break out in attack, Bundee Aki knocks on.
Wales win the scrum and Biggar clears.
Ireland 5-3 Wales, 9 mins
Wales give away another penalty in the middle of the park, allowing Sexton to kick for territory.
Warren Gatland stressed before the game that Wales would have to watch their discipline. So far, they have not.
TRY, Jacob Stockdale! Ireland 5-3 Wales, 5 mins
There's a forward pass from Wales as they attempt to play their way out of their own 22, setting Ireland up with an attacking scrum which becomes relentless phase play through the forwards.
A couple of whipped passes later and Jacob Stockdale roars over on the wing. Johnny Sexton misses his second kick of the day.
Ireland 0-3 Wales, 3 mins
Ireland earn a penalty of their own straightaway.
Johnny Sexton's kick from the restart goes straight to Chris Farrell, who powers forward. Ken Owens gives away a penalty for hands in the ruck, Sexton steps up and... it ricochets back off the post!
Ireland 0-3 Wales, 2 mins
From the kick off, Jacob Stockdale sends a kick back towards Wales which is recycled to Dan Biggar in the centre of the park.
He executes a sweet crossfield kick which earns Wales a penalty, Ireland swiftly pinged for offside. Leigh Halfpenny goes for goal and sends the ball up and over perfectly.
Kick off imminent
Wales kick to Ireland. Let's be having you!
Time for anthems
Ireland and Wales, the singing nations, now prepare to send tingles up our spines.
Ireland late to the tunnel
Alun Wyn Jones is looking about, absolutely livid. The term “mind games” is being thrown around in the ITV studio.
This is great entertainment already.
Teams arrive at the Aviva
... and we're just over 30 minutes away from kick off.
The excitement is building. Can you feel it, pumping through your veins?
Reminder of the Wales team
TEAM NEWS �������������� Wales welcome back @lionsofficial trio Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams for #IREvWAL. Croeso nol i Lewod Halfpenny, Williams a Biggar i wynebu Iwerddon dydd Sadwrn. pic.twitter.com/MDgRyrrmGM— Welsh Rugby Union �� (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 20, 2018
Reminder of the Ireland team
Joe Schmidt on Ireland's injuries
Schmidt gave updates on his absentees and talked up his replacements before the game, saying: “Iain [Henderson] was very close, he could definitely play next weekend, and the week after he will be fine.
“Tadhg [Furlong] was close as well. We thought on Tuesday with Tadhg he may well make it, but the progress just stalled a little bit so we said let's not chase this, let's focus on the opportunity for other people and get you right for Scotland in a couple of weeks' time.
“They are world class players, you don't suddenly replace world class players, but we're a lot more focused on who we do have. Who we do have is Andrew Porter who is a really promising young player that we're excited about, and James Ryan likewise.
“We're short on experience and we're up against a team welcoming back three Lions while we see three disappear. So, yes, that's not ideal, but at the same time, if you want to learn, what better environment than a really white-hot atmosphere in the Aviva on Saturday.”
Warren Gatland's 100th game in charge
It's a milestone for Warren Gatland, who will preside over his 100th Wales match in Dublin.
Speaking about how he plans to get the better of Ireland in his pre-match press conference, he said: “You've got to keep your discipline against Ireland and we've felt our discipline in the first two games has been excellent.
“We've got to make sure that we don't give them an opportunity to kick to the sidelines from giving away penalties, to execute their driven line-out, which is pretty effective, and allow Johnny Sexton to keep the scoreboard ticking over with three points.”
Though Ireland are firm favourites to continue their unbeaten start to the Six Nations today, the general underestimation of Wales has become a theme of this tournament.
Scotland were the first to find that they had grossly misjudged the threat that Wales posed, thumped 34-7 at the Principality Stadium. Were it not for a wrongly disallowed Gareth Anscombe try at Twickenham, England may too have been embarrassed by a team far better than much of the rugby commentariat thought.
That said, Ireland were imperious in their last match against Italy, steamrolling the Azzuri 56-19 in a match which, by the end, had become little more than a training game for the men in green. While it took Johnny Sexton's magnificent drop goal in overtime to get them past France in their first match of the tournament, the Irish seem ready to live up to their billing as Grand Slam challengers.
There is also the small fact that, since Joe Schmidt took over as head coach back in 2013, Ireland have not been beaten at home in the Six Nations. If Wales are to spring an upset in Dublin, they will have to disregard recent history.
Andrew Porter and Chris Farrell are set to make their first Six Nations starts for Ireland this afternoon, coming in for the injured Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw. Injuries have weakened Ireland somewhat, which may give Wales encouragement.
Furlong injured his hamstring against Italy and Henshaw sustained a nasty shoulder injury in the act of scoring, while second rower Iain Henderson also has a hamstring injury and will be replaced by Leinster lock James Ryan.
Meanwhile, Warren Gatland has made three changes from the Wales side which faced England, with Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams and a fit-again Dan Biggar replacing Gareth Anscombe, Josh Adams and Rhys Patchell respectively. If anything Wales are gaining in strength so, again, it would serve Ireland well to be wary.