DUBLIN – Two tries by try machine Jacob Stockdale helped Ireland keep their Six Nations Grand Slam hopes alive with a pulsating 37-27 victory over Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Stockdale’s double – taking his tally to eight in seven Tests – book-ended a five-try display from the Irish which also garnered a bonus point as they sneaked their noses over the line against a Welsh side that refused to lie down and at one point had led 13-5.
The Irish, who maintained their proud Six Nations home record under Joe Schmidt in never having lost since he took over after the 2013 edition, will host the Scots in a fortnight and hope to go on from there for a mouth watering potential Grand Slam decider with champions England on March 17.
After Leigh Halfpenny gave Wales an early lead, the hosts hit back as a sublime long pass from Sexton picked out Stockdale and the wing went over in the corner.
Sexton, though, had yet to find his kicking boots as having seen a penalty come back off the post slotted his conversion wide and another chance went a-begging with a kickable penalty on the quarter hour mark.
The hosts had the Welsh pinned inside their 22, but were unable to turn their possession into points and they were caught by a sucker punch just after the 20 minute mark when Rob Kearney spilled the ball deep inside Welsh territory.
Sexton cleared the Welsh kick but from the resulting lineout great work by Welsh flank Aaron Shingler and Rob Evans saw Gareth Davies pick up the ball, outfox Stockdale and touch down under the posts – Halfpenny added the extras for 10-5.
Halfpenny extended the Welsh lead on the half hour with a finely-struck penalty, but Sexton at last landed one of his own.
The hosts were geed up and stormed back up the field as time ran down the clock on the first half.
With a penalty in the offing the Irish banged away at the Welsh line and in the end it was Bundee Aki who went over from a metre out – Sexton adding the extras to give the Irish an unlikely halftime lead.
The impact on both sides of that turnaround was hammered home early in the second-half as the Irish forced a turnover and worked it up the pitch with great work by Keith Earls and Conor Murray to keep the ball alive before Dan Leavy went over and Sexton added the conversion for a 22-13 lead.
The Irish fans were now in full voice drowning out their Welsh rivals and their roars rose to the skies when Cian Healy burrowed over the line – his first try in four years for his country – to secure the Irish a bonus point with over 25 minutes remaining.
Sexton’s conversion went wide, but the hosts had a sizeable 27-13 lead and Wales coach Warren Gatland decided it was time to ring the changes taking off his entire hard-pressed front row.
Wales were far from finished and roared back as the impressive Shingler went over for his first try for his country – Halfpenny landing a superb conversion from the touchline to leave the Irish 27-20 up.
Murray stood in for Sexton to kick a penalty and seemingly put the Irish out of sight at 30-20 with five minutes to go.
But the Welsh didn’t think so as a brilliant offload by Scott Williams ended with Steff Evans going in under the posts.
Halfpenny added the extras for 30-27, before the predatory Stockdale pounced to intercept and run under the posts to seal a thrilling victory.