Reigning champions outsiders to win their third title in a row to create history.
Wales coach Warren Gatland admitted he had no excuses after watching Ireland maul the two-time defending Six Nations champions at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
The visitors suffered their worst tournament defeat since 2006 and took 56 minutes to score, with Leigh Halfpenny’s penalty alone helping them avoid a humiliating whitewash in a comprehensive 26-3 loss.
Defeat dealt a huge, but not fatal, blow to Wales’s hopes of becoming the first side to win three successive outright Six Nations titles.
Ireland’s tactics ‘surprised’ Gatland, the New Zealand-born coach admitted, but ill discipline and a lack of effectiveness at the breakdown also cost Wales dearly.
“We were well beaten by a better team today, there’s no excuses, it was a very disappointing display from us,” said Gatland, a former Ireland coach.
“But hats off to Ireland, they played very well. They dominated us up front, mauled very well, were strong at breakdown, they made it very difficult.
“Two things were probably most disappointing; our discipline, we conceded a lot of penalties, and that gave them the opportunity to kick to touch and then get driving line-out going.
“We spoke a lot about being hard on our line-out defence, but we weren’t good enough, and as the players take responsibility, we as coaches have to do it too.
“We have to show some character to bounce back for the next game against France.”
Gatland had dominated much of the build up to this game, following his decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll in the final British and Irish Lions test last year but, as expected, that had little or no impact on the on-field action.
Instead, it was Joe Schmidt’s tactics — based on predictions of bad weather that ultimately didn’t arrive, that was the key talking point post-match.
“They possibly surprised us, and it was effective,” said Gatland, alluding to the Ireland coach’s usual fondness for open, attacking play.
“I can’t remember any occasion when they moved the ball through the backline to open us up. They kicked the leather off it, there was a lot of one-pass rugby out there, but they also dominated up front, so we have to take that on the chin.”
Sexton punished Welsh indiscipline in the opening 20 minutes, kicking two penalties and then causing mayhem in defence with one of many tactical kicks deep into Welsh territory.
Chris Henry’s first Irish try arrived following a planned lineout maul, and Sexton’s penalties kept the scoreboard ticking over, until Paddy Jackson added a second try in the dying minutes.
The last time Ireland enjoyed back-to-back victories in the opening two games of this tournament, they won the Grand Slam in 2009, so naturally all eyes now turn to Twickenham where they face England in a fortnight’s time.
“To be honest, I’m not thinking too far ahead,” cautioned Schmidt. “We’ll get together in Clonmel for a few days, next week and try to review what we’ve done and plot a course going forward to Twickenham.
“That’s a massive game, they were very unlucky last week in Paris (England lost 26-24). The English dominated long periods of that game so they will be incredibly difficult to beat.”