THE finest game Wales have played in the professional era on such a major occasion. That has to be the verdict on their stunning World Cup quarter-final victory over Ireland at Wellington Stadium
Instead of it being Ireland’s stage with so many of their players in or near the veteran stage giving it one last fling, it was too late, time had passed them by.
The reality of a memorable night in New Zealand and one that will go down in the annals of Welsh rugby history was that it was the day of the Dragon.
And how the mighty Dragons roared! Vastly outnumbered in the stadium by the Irish thousands and apparently overwhelmed by a sea of green on every conceivable route into the capital city, it was the
red of Wales that held sway.
From the opening minutes of the match when Wales sliced open the Irish defence for Shane Williams to score his 56th try for his country there was rarely any doubt about which way this contest was
The Irish did pull back to level the scores at 10-10 four minutes into the second half, but that was as close as they got and Wales responded by dealing them a double blow soon after.
Mike Phillips, at his imperious best, rocked them back on their heels again with a stupendous solo try ending with a swoop for the line that bore all the hallmarks of the great Gareth Edwards.
And then just as we all thought centre Jonathan Davies had, not for the first time in his career, hung on to the ball for too long, a gap opened up invitingly and on he strode through it for the
line and the match-winning try.
In fact, Wales could have won even more convincingly had Rhys Priestland, who otherwise had another excellent game, not twice struck an upright with penalty attempts which he might have put over in
less difficult conditions, with the wind swirling in a way it only seems to do in Wellington.
It is difficult to overstate just how well Wales played in terms of tactics, putting the game plan into operation and at the same time playing some glorious controlled rugby.
They knew to a man that they had to tackle as if their lives depended on it to snuff out the menace of tearaway Irish back- row trio Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien.
They did precisely that, Dragons pair Luke Charteris and Dan Lydiate leading the way. They were all told to go low by defence
chief Shaun Edwards to stop the Irish in their tracks and they obeyed the instructions faithfully so that once halted the men in green were not on go at all.
Lydiate put in an incredible 24 tackles when only three weeks earlier he had one foot on the gangplank of the plane heading for home after damaging an ankle against Samoa.
And Charteris was positively herculean as he made 16 tackles in the first half, astonishing for a towering lock, but he injured a shoulder and could not take part in the second half, which could
yet be a worry for Wales.
A mighty effort by the Welsh tight five ensured parity in the set pieces and Lions locks Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan could not impose themselves.
And outside those set pieces Wales played nearly all the rugby. There was a flow, a style and a confidence about their play that had the likes of Michael Owen enthusing afterwards it was the best
he had ever seen Wales play.
Phillips was simply immense along with Lions colleague Jamie Roberts, both yet again showing how they relish the big occasion, shattering any Irish pre-match confidence with the sheer forcefulness
of their power play.
Priestland also justified once more coach Warren Gatland’s faith in him, repetitive though that may sound. France may have something to say about the outcome, but Wales are but one step away from
appearing in their first ever World Cup final. How good does that sound this Monday?