CARDIFF, WALES // Ireland mixed panache with power to beat Wales 30-22 in a pulsating opening match of the Six Nations yesterday, condemning the beleaguered holders to an eighth straight loss and already leaving their title defence in disarray.
Centre Brian O'Driscoll, who recently relinquished the Irish captaincy, instigated Wales' latest defeat by setting up Simon Zebo's 11th-minute try with a fabulous offload and going over himself after the break for his 46th try in 121 Irish Tests.
Prop Cian Healy barged over in the 23rd minute - after some dazzling footwork by Zebo - for the other Ireland try, who faced an onslaught in the final 32 minutes.
Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny and Craig Mitchell scored tries for Wales in that period but Ireland's terrific defence made time run out for the hosts, who lost a fifth straight home Test for the first time since 1991.
"First game is a must win otherwise you're chasing your tail for the rest of the competition," said O'Driscoll, who has indicated this could be his final Six Nations. "We owed Wales one - they did a number on us in the last three games."
Fly-half Jonathan Sexton finished with a perfect kicking record of three penalties and three conversions for 15 points for the Irish, who were seen as dark horses for the Six Nations before this weekend but may suddenly find themselves given the tag of favourites.
Their main title rivals, France and England, must both travel to Lansdowne Road.
The Welsh, however, have not won a Test since last year's Grand Slam-winning campaign and until they stop giving their opposition big early leads, their winless run is unlikely come to an end.
It does not get any easier either, with pre-tournament favourites France awaiting them next weekend in Paris.
"We didn't start well, you need a foothold in the game," the interim Wales coach Rob Howley said. "You can't give any international side the space and time on the ball which we gave in the first 20 minutes."
It was a sixth straight loss under Howley, who has been filling in for Warren Gatland on and off for the past year while the New Zealander undertakes his duties as British and Irish Lions coach for the tour of Australia starting in June.
"This group of players will keep playing and they showed great character," Howley said. "It's just making that right decision under pressure ... we talked all week about starting well and we didn't."
Gatland was in the crowd as a Lions assessor and cannot have failed to have been impressed by the enduring class of O'Driscoll, who could yet be made Lions captain for a second time.
"He was brilliant but that's Brian," the Ireland coach Declan Kidney said.
England want to keep it ticking
LONDON // Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, was satisfied with a 38-18 win over Scotland in their Six Nations opener at Twickenham.
Centre Billy Twelvetrees marked his England debut with a try to Chris Ashton, Geoff Parling and Danny Care also crossed as England built on their autumn Test win over world champions New Zealand.
“I’m really pleased with the score line,” Lancaster told BBC1. “I’d have taken that at the start of the day. We were a little loose on occasions but, overall, I’m pleased with the start. We have been building steadily and getting more consistency.
“That New Zealand game [a shock victory last December] gave us a lot of confidence. Now we’ve got to continue to build on that.”
England tackle Ireland next, 30-22 victors over Wales in Cardiff, and Lancaster is relishing the challenge.
“We’ve got a very hard game in Dublin next week,” he said. “We watched half of the game. Ireland played well in the first half but Wales came back well in the second half.”
Man-of-the-match Owen Farrell was accurate with the boot again, contributing 18 points courtesy of four penalties and three conversions. He told BBC1: “It’s important to keep the scoreboard ticking over. The boys work hard to get these penalties and it’s important to reward them by kicking them over.
“We played with real pace and tempo and I thought the intensity was good. But we can be hard on ourselves as well. There are plenty of things to work on.”
Scotland coach Scott Johnson said his team conceded too many “easy yards” after seeing his pack overwhelmed in the second half.
“We said before the match that if we got the contact area right we’d win the game. Yeah, they had the opportunities. We butchered a couple, too,” he said. “We gave them too many easy yards and we’re really disappointed. We let ourselves down.”
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