Six Nations: Simon Zebo's skill typified Six Nations thriller

By Bryn PalmerBBC Sport at the Millennium Stadium
Six Nations: Simon Zebo's cheeky backheel sets up Ireland try

Jamie Heaslip might only have been referring to Simon Zebo's back-heeled flick into his own hands in the run-up to Cian Healy's second try for Ireland.

But the captain's description of the wing's audacious bit of skill as "Match of the Day-type stuff" could have applied to the entire contest in Cardiff.

There was more than a touch of football's Premier League about the helter-skelter nature of a classic game of two halves, with plenty of tries, frenetic defending, and class and chaos in equal measure.

As an advert for the Six Nations, this year's opening game was brilliant entertainment, for partisans and neutrals alike.

For the two countries involved however, very different scenarios now beckon as a result of Ireland's thrilling 30-22 win over Wales.

Declan Kidney's men can now approach next Sunday's visit of England to Dublin with buoyancy, belief and confidence, the rest of the tournament alive with possibilities.

Not that the Ireland coach was having anything to do with suggestions that with victory over last year's Grand Slammers in the bag, his own side might now entertain thoughts of something similar, with France also visiting Dublin.

"That is only a myth really, especially if you look at how well England and France have been going," he said. "I don't buy into that, because it would mean that every second year we shouldn't bother competing because we have got no chance."

There will be those who give Wales similar odds of making any impression on this championship now they have extended their grisly run of defeats to eight, with France in Paris next Saturday the first of three successive away games.

If they play the way they did for the opening 25 minutes here, there is every reason to fear not just the visit to the Stade de France but the subsequent trips to Rome and Edinburgh.

Ireland win a thrilling encounter at the Millennium Stadium as they beat defending champions Wales 30-22 in the opening match of the 2013 Six Nations.

If they play the way they did in the final 35 minutes, then who knows what this Jekyll and Hyde Welsh side might still achieve.

After a catastrophic opening period, they could be pleased with the resolve shown to even make a game of it after falling 30-3 behind within three minutes of the second half.

Individually, there were strong performances by Ian Evans after a long period of inaction, his debutant second-row partner Andrew Coombs, and tireless number eight Toby Faletau, who was Wales' leading ball-carrier and joint-top tackler. Flanker Justin Tipuric also showed on his second-half arrival an athleticism that will surely lead to a starting spot in the near future.

But it was a game where the statistics, while encouraging on one hand, will make for gruesome reading on the other.

Wales enjoyed 63% of the possession, 65% of the territory, carried the ball 167 times to Ireland's 76, made 512m to Ireland's 210, and five line breaks to two.

And yet Ireland were far more clinical, taking points at almost every opportunity, punishing Welsh follies and defending heroically - if illegally at times, resulting in two yellow cards - as the hosts often lacked the guile to go with their gargantuan effort.

Dan Biggar belatedly found the key to unlock the Irish defence when he put Alex Cuthbert through for Wales' opening try, but the fly-half had a mixed first Six Nations outing, having a kick charged down for Ireland's second try and looking less than assured in defence.

Centre Jonathan Davies - such a classy presence at times - will also not enjoy reviewing the three chances he botched: two mis-timed passes behind Alex Cuthbert into touch, and a fatal delay in releasing the excellent Leigh Halfpenny late on when another try looked a given.

Interim coach Rob Howley, who should have Ryan Jones and Richard Hibbard back to bolster his forward options for Paris, felt his side "left four tries out there" and it was hard to disagree.

It was not all rosy for Ireland. Centre Gordon D'Arcy left the Millennium Stadium on crutches with his left leg strapped up, while his replacement, Keith Earls, had his left arm in a sling. Flanker Peter O'Mahony will also have to go through the "return to play" protocols after a bang to the head.

But if Kidney is forced into a change in midfield, at least he can be sure the other half of his centre combination is in good order.

Brian O'Driscoll has only had two full games for Leinster after two months out following ankle surgery, which saw him miss Ireland's autumn programme.

But if this is to be his final Six Nations, as he has suggested it will be, then he clearly intends to leave an even greater imprint on the tournament he has graced for 13 years.

After a slightly mis-timed early pass to Rob Kearney and a dodgy kick to touch, he did not put a foot wrong. The great man created Simon Zebo's opening try with a wonderful shimmy and delightfully weighted pass, scored a poacher's try early in the second half, marshalled a superb Irish defence that was on the back foot for the rest of the match and even filled in at scrum-half when Conor Murray was in the sin-bin.

"I thought he was the difference between the sides," said Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards, ruefully. "I wish someone had left him in Ireland."

Kidney was not the most popular man in the country after relieving O'Driscoll of the captaincy, but if he gets more performances like this from the 34-year-old for the remainder of the championship, his decision might just be viewed in a different light.

"It would be wrong to say it doesn't surprise you, because it does," Kidney said. "Normally you shouldn't be able to pull out such an international-class performance like that with the amount of game time he has had. It is just a privilege to be working with him."

So would he be tempted to try to persuade O'Driscoll to carry on in an Ireland shirt?

"Brian will make up his own mind," the coach insisted. "That is the man he is. As long as he is enjoying it, it will be his decision. I wouldn't like to sway him one way or the other. Obviously you would love to have him around forever. But a performance like that is not easy on the body."

Indeed, the entire game was played at such a pace and intensity it was a wonder anyone was still standing by the end.

Heaslip, O'Driscoll's successor as captain, remarked that it was "one of the first games for a long time where I have walked off with literally nothing left in the tank".

If he feels the same way after the next four matches, it will be one hell of a Six Nations.


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