CARDIFF, WALES – Ireland restored some pride by beating Wales 22-17 in a scrappy Rugby World Cup warmup between second-string sides on Saturday.
The Irish were in desperation mode after enduring a 57-15 thrashing from England last weekend at Twickenham and responded by pulling ahead 22-3 in Cardiff thanks to a penalty try off their dominant scrum nearly an hour into the game.
Wales then began its own comeback, after prop Leon Brown came out of the sin-bin, with tries by wing Owen Lane in his debut and replacement flyhalf Rhys Patchell, who converted both and engineered the rally.
But time ran out on Wales, costing it an 11-test win streak at home — its longest since 1912 — and the No. 1 test ranking, which was restored to world champion New Zealand.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt made 11 changes, and flyhalf Jack Carty starred with his vision and distribution. His offload to bursting wing Andrew Conway set up Jacob Stockdale’s first try, and Stockdale scored the second from a dropped Welsh offload.
Ireland’s set-pieces were also reliable, earning six penalties from scrums, and losing only one throw-in after losing six against England.
“(Winning) was massive for us,” Carty said. “We were all hurting during the week but we came together. It wasn’t perfect at times but our defense was good.”
After a pushover attempt was rewarded with a penalty try by referee Romain Poite, Ireland led 22-3. If the margin had held, Ireland would have strangely become No. 1 for the first time, a week after being blown out by England. World Rugby vice chairman Agustin Pichot called Wales’ rise to No. 1 “ridiculous” in the middle of the week. Wales dampened the debate about the rankings by making it close and preventing Ireland’s rise.
Wales coach Warren Gatland made 14 changes to the side that beat England 13-6 in Cardiff two weeks ago to earn the No. 1 ranking for the first time. Gatland debuted Lane and prop Rhys Carre. More importantly, he gave Jarrod Evans and Patchell chances to audition to be the backup flyhalf in the World Cup squad he will announce on Sunday. Patchell seemed to gain the edge, as he and scrumhalf Tomos Williams sharpened the attack to rouse the home crowd.
The teams will meet again next weekend in Dublin.
As the Rugby World Cup draws closer, Schmidt is hopeful of striking the right balance with his squad, admitting he failed to do so four years ago.
Ireland will send its squad list to World Rugby on Monday but it will not be made public until Sept 8 — the day after the Irish host Wales in a final warm-up match before leaving for Japan.
“I can tell you now, I’m not sure. We need to see what our balance is,” Schmidt said when asked how close he was to the final 31.
“Whatever you do there’s always a risk you don’t quite get it right. I don’t think we got it right last time (in 2015).
“It’s a horrible couple of days. For those players who miss out it’s going to be a real body blow, I’m incredibly conscious of that.
“But you can only take 31 players and that’s the reality of it.”
The toughest decision for Schmidt, who will step down after the World Cup having guided the Irish to three Six Nations titles and historic wins over world champion New Zealand, will likely be between backs Conway, Jordan Larmour, Chris Farrell and Will Addison, who played well on Saturday.
“Will (Addison) did some things really well, he took a cut to the head and then got (a) cramp, so we brought him off to protect him from injury,” said Schmidt.
“He has such a balanced running style, he gets a good look at the pitch running back from fullback, and he’s accomplished at kicking and kicking goals as well. So he’s a good backup from that perspective.
“He’s underdone, he hasn’t had as much rugby as we would have liked, but then versatility is a huge strength for him.
“So we’ll be looking at him and comparing a few other guys, and seeing who best fits the mold.”
Elsewhere, Scotland moved along in its World Cup preparations with Finn Russell leading a 44-10 hammering of Georgia in Tbilisi.
Russell played a part in all but one of the visitors’ five tries during a match that saw a top-tier rugby team play in the former Soviet state for the first time.
Rory Hutchinson crossed twice to secure Gregor Townsend’s second straight victory following a loss against France two weeks ago.
Prop Kakha Asieshvili claimed his sixth try in 35 Tests for Georgia, which is 12th in the world rankings.
“You want the players to play well and they did that tonight. The more players that are training well and playing well, the harder it will be for us to get it down to 31 players,” Townsend told BBC Radio Scotland ahead of naming his final World Cup squad on Tuesday.
“In the first 20 minutes I thought we were accurate, we chased kicks well, we cleared contact well and held up in our set-piece.”
“That got us pulled into the game and we chipped away at the scoreboard through pressure and getting penalties,” he added.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5