By Paul Jones
Warren Gatland tried to find some thin silver linings but Ireland’s cloudburst washed out any hope of a victory parade in his second stint as Wales coach.
The Welsh Rugby Union turned to Gatland after Wayne Pivac’s three-year reign came to an end in December, with the idea that he could hit the ground running in the Six Nations and continue the momentum into this year’s World Cup.
But there was little evidence of any Gatland factor in the opening game of the tournament as Ireland won 34-10 at the Principality Stadium – their biggest tournament win in Cardiff for 22 years.
Gatland oversaw a golden era for Wales between 2008 and 2019, but this was a sobering lesson to how far the national team has fallen in his absence, with very little to suggest the early impact he had 15 years ago can be repeated.
“I think the slow start was brought on ourselves by the fact that we conceded some penalties which gave them the momentum to get into our 22,” said Gatland, who confirmed Wales will be without record caps holder Alun Wyn Jones in Scotland next week after the second-row forward failed a head injury assessment.
“We didn’t have a good enough exit to start the game and we were 14 points down and under the pump.
“But I thought the second half was a huge improvement. At the end of the game I said in my head that I actually wasn’t that disappointed with our performance.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) February 4, 2023
“I think there’s a huge amount of upside in us and in the past we’ve been able to work hard and fix things.
“We made some nice breaks and we built some good momentum to get into their 22 but we just lacked that accuracy and didn’t come away with the points.”
Ireland, the world’s number-one ranked team, scored 22 points in the opening 21 minutes and led 27-3 at the break after blitzing Wales with three first-half tries at the Principality Stadium.
“They are the best side in the world and they showed that against us,” said Gatland.
“I told the players that’s them (Ireland) at their best today and we just need to be a little more clinical, start better and focus on our discipline.”
Wales captain Ken Owens admitted his team had not managed to deal with Ireland in the way they had planned.
“It was tough, we didn’t deliver on what we spoke about. Ireland didn’t do anything we were surprised by, but they got on top of us early on,” said the hooker.
“Our discipline gave them entries and that is where they are very good.
“I’m proud of the team, we stuck at the task and the boys left everything out on the field.
“There was plenty of experience out there and we made some brave decisions, but we lacked a bit of accuracy to capitalise on our chances.
“That’s the difference between us and a team like Ireland at the moment. They are accurate, clinical and they get the job done.
“I can’t question the players’ dedication, we just need to tidy up the small details and improve our discipline which let us down.”
Andy Farrell praised his Ireland players for overcoming adversity after putting Wales to sword.
It was Ireland’s first Six Nations win on Welsh soil since 2013 – with tries from Caelan Doris, James Ryan, James Lowe and Josh van der Flier securing a bonus-point win for the world’s number-one ranked team.
Wales lucky to be second best in every aspect. Beaten up tactically, physically and mentally.
No real positives in a second half where Ireland were feet up and smoking a pipe.
The difference between IRFU and WRU investment in pro rugby exposed in brutal fashion #WALvIRE
— Cardiff Rugby Life (@CardiffRugbyWeb) February 4, 2023
It came after scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park had been ruled out with a hamstring injury just a few hours before kick-off, with the veteran Conor Murray drafted in to win his 101st cap.
“It showed the strength of the group coming through that,” head coach Farrell said of the late change to his starting XV.
“Three or four of them had not played any rugby for a long time, and we’ve had two or three injuries this week as well.
“What happened this morning could have unsettled any side, but there are no excuses.
“We prepare as a group of 37 or 38 and we expect to perform. We trust and back the squad to put in a performance and this reiterates that.”
Ireland were almost out of sight at half-time having scored three tries and opened up a commanding 27-3 lead.
Wales were improved in the second period with Liam Williams crossing, but the full-back’s yellow card for a high tackle on Johnny Sexton ended any hopes of a comeback.
Nobody ought to be one bit surprised by the size of Ireland's win. Cannot recall great players like Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau being so far below par. Bemused by Mr Gatland's verdict: 'We will take a lot from that.' Just finished watching @Scotlandteam. Terrific.
— Peter Jackson (@JackoRugby) February 4, 2023
Farrell said: “I’m delighted to get off to a good start because as we all know this is a really difficult place to start the campaign. Our history says exactly that.
“But our preparation has been top drawer and we got what we deserved.
“At the same time there’s plenty to do, to fix and get better. It’s not a bad place to be.”
Ireland host France next weekend in a game that could shape the title’s destiny, while Wales head to Edinburgh for an appointment with Scotland when Gatland will demand an immediate response against a team who beat England 29-23 at Twickenham to win the Calcutta Cup for the third time in a row.
It was another defeat for Wales after a miserable 12 months that featured humiliating home losses to Italy and Georgia under Gatland’s predecessor Pivac, while off the field the Welsh Rugby Union has been rocked to its core by sexism and discrimination allegations in the organisation.