CARDIFF (Reuters) - George North bounced back from criticism from his own camp to crash over the try line twice as Wales beat Ireland 22-9 in a bruising Six Nations clash on Friday that restored home pride after two successive defeats.
North had been warned about his form by defence coach Shaun Edwards in the build-up to the game and responded by demonstrating his quality and power as Wales scored three unanswered tries in a hard-worked win.
Victory ensured Wales would stay in the top eight of the World Rugby rankings and avoid a potential horror draw for the next Rugby World Cup in Japan.
They had lost their previous Six Nations clashes against Scotland and England and were in danger of slipping down the rankings.
The result dented Ireland’s hopes of securing a third Six Nations title in four years as England can win the championship on Saturday if they beat Scotland.
“We owed that to the Welsh people and to ourselves. We haven’t done ourselves justice in the last two games,” said Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones after a game characterised by some bone crunching tackling.
Ireland opened the scoring inside 10 minutes after a high tackle by Rhys Webb, which Johnny Sexton slotted over before going off just minutes later for a concussion test after suffering a blow to the head.
Scrumhalf Webb made a break that set up a first try for Wales on 20 minutes, setting Leigh Halfpenny away with a long pass out wide that was finished off by North’s power.
But the 5-3 lead lasted only six minutes before Paddy Jackson, on as a temporary replacement for Sexton, put over another penalty as Justin Tipuric, winning a 50th cap for Wales, was penalised for holding on in the ruck.
A Welsh surge on the stroke of halftime saw centre Jonathan Davies held up just before the line with Sexton yellow carded by referee Wayne Barnes for killing the ball on the line.
The one-man advantage continued into the second half where the second Welsh try came after just three minutes as a lineout maul was expertly set up before being fed out quickly for North to cross over unmarked for a 10th try in his last six Six Nations encounters.
Ireland reduced the deficit to 15-9 with a Sexton penalty in the 57th minute and had a great chance to score 10 minutes from time only to be penalised when Robbie Henshaw illegally came in ahead of Rory Best in the maul as the captain crashed over.
A capacity crowd had to endure a nail-biting final as the Welsh defence desperately clung onto a narrow lead in the closing stages, but burst into celebration as replacement Taulupe Faletau charged down Sexton’s clearance kick and veteran Jamie Roberts gathered it up to go over.
(This story corrects paragraph five to make clear Ireland’s title hopes scenario.)
Reporting by Mark Gleeson, editing by Pritha Sarkar