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Ireland beat Wales for much needed confidence booster

Ireland beat Wales for much needed confidence booster
Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup warm-up match - Ireland v Wales - Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Republic of Ireland - September 7, 2019 Ireland's Rob Kearney in action with Wales' George North REUTERS/Phil Noble -
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PHIL NOBLE(Reuters)
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By Padraic Halpin

DUBLIN (Reuters) – Ireland became the world’s number one ranked team with a 19-10 victory over Wales on Saturday that felt a little more like a World Cup clash than the final warm-up before the tournament begins later this month.

With both sides near full strength and the intensity dialled up, Ireland, under pressure to perform after their disappointing Six Nations and record 57-15 warm-up rout by England two weeks ago, delivered a much needed confidence-boosting display.

They were certainly much improved in many areas and while Wales faded badly the second half, neither team will be unhappy with a competitive tune-up and no evident bad injuries, although Ireland’s Keith Earls did walk gingerly off the pitch.

Such are the niceties of rugby’s ranking system, tries from Rob Kearney, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan mean Ireland will arrive in Japan as the world’s top-ranked side for the first time. The encouraging performance, however, will mean more.

“Today was really, really important to make sure we took a step forward,” captain Rory Best, playing at home for the last time ahead of his post-World Cup retirement, said in a pitchside interview amid deafening roars.

“There’s still a way to go but that was a very efficient performace against a quality side.”

Marshalled by Johnny Sexton for the first time in their pre-World Cup outings, Ireland’s passing looked the slickest it has been all year with Bundee Aki, one of only three players retained by the sides after Ireland’s 22-17 win in Cardiff last week, especially sharp alongside Robbie Henshaw at centre.

There were more eyes than usual on the Irish lineout after chief jumper Devin Toner was surprisingly left out of the World Cup squad midweek and Wales duly stole Best’s first two throws, threatening another misfiring afternoon after Twickenham.

But Best’s third attempt near the Welsh line was cleanly caught, providing the platform for the hosts to spin it out to fullback Kearney to cross for the opening score.

The lead did not last long as Leigh Halfpenny encouragingly found his range with a fine penalty and Hadleigh Parkes touched down from an unstoppable angle off a scrum, moments after Henshaw denied Dan Biggar with a brilliant last ditch tackle.

Ireland were not giving Sexton too much practice at goal, perhaps wisely getting some lineout practice instead and another kick to the corner shortly after the break ultimately led to Furlong blasting over after sustained pressure.

Furlong’s try in particular offered glimpses of the kind of patient and pinpoint ball carrying that saw Ireland suffocate almost all before them last year. Man of the match lock Ryan, unstoppable again, added a near-identical try minutes later.

The methodical hosts comfortably saw things out so that Warren Gatland was unable to deny Joe Schmidt a victorious farewell in his final home game, as Schmidt had done to his fellow Kiwi in Cardiff last week with both men set to depart after the World Cup.

Ireland, who face a potentially tricky Pool A with Scotland and hosts Japan, begin their campaign against the Scots on Sept. 22. Wales kick off a day later against Georgia before facing Australia on Sept. 29 in the likely Pool D decider.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Ken Ferris and Ian Chadband)

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