CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Ireland mixed panache with power to beat Wales 30-22 in a pulsating opening match of the Six Nations on Saturday, condemning the beleaguered holders to an eighth straight loss and already leaving their title defense in disarray.
Center Brian O'Driscoll, who recently relinquished the Irish captaincy, instigated Wales' latest defeat by setting up Simon Zebo's 11th-minute try with a fabulous offload and going over himself after the break for his 46th try in 121 Irish tests.
Prop Cian Healy barged over in the 23rd — after some dazzling footwork by Zebo — for the other try for the Irish, who faced an onslaught in the final 32 minutes. Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny and Craig Mitchell scored tries for Wales in that period but Ireland's terrific defense made time run out for the hosts, who lost a fifth straight home test for the first time since 1991.
"First game is a must win otherwise you're chasing your tail for the rest of the competition," said O'Driscoll, who has indicated this could be his final Six Nations. "We owed Wales one — they did a number on us in the last three games."
Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton finished with a perfect kicking record of three penalties and three conversions for 15 points for the Irish, who were seen as dark horses for the Six Nations before this weekend but may suddenly find themselves given the tag of favorites. Their main title rivals, France and England, must both travel to Lansdowne Road.
The Welsh, however, haven't won a test since last year's Grand Slam-winning campaign and until they stop giving their opposition big early leads, their winless run won't come to an end. It doesn't get any easier either, with pre-tournament favorite France awaiting them next weekend in Paris.
"We didn't start well, you need a foothold in the game," interim Wales coach Rob Howley said. "You can't give any international side the space and time on the ball which we gave in the first 20 minutes."
With Zebo and Craig Gilroy on the wings, Ireland has added pace and daring to its back play since the 2012 Six Nations and Zebo in particular stood out on his tournament debut. The Munster wing darted in for his second try in four tests after O'Driscoll exploded through a gap in the Welsh defense and flicked a superb pass across to Zebo.
Ireland was forcing turnovers, and soon built on its lead after an amazing piece of skill from Zebo. Rory Best charged down a kick from Dan Biggar and collected the ball, which was recycled out to Jamie Heaslip and then Zebo, who flicked the ball up with the outside of his left foot and continued the move. One phase later, Healy burrowed over from a meter for a try converted by Sexton, who had already booted a penalty.
Sexton and Halfpenny traded penalties but it was the Irish who finished the half in control, holding up a first sustained attack by Wales and then seeing Sexton knock over a stoppage-time penalty for 23-3.
The hosts were forced by the score to open up and score tries in the second half — just as they had to in autumn losses to New Zealand and Australia — but only after the evergreen O'Driscoll scored what proved to be a crucial try.
After Zebo and Conor Murray were tackled on the tryline, O'Driscoll found no more defenders to stop him from diving over from a meter out for the converted try and 30-3. Ireland was on tackle duty for the rest of the game. Cuthbert ran a beautiful line from Biggar's outside pass for a 48th-minute try and when Best was sin-binned 10 minutes later following an accumulation of team penalties, Wales capitalized almost immediately as Halfpenny squeezed over the line in the right corner.
Further pressure saw Murray yellow-carded and Mitchell go over for a 75th-minute try that needed the judgment of the video referee. Ireland was safely home by then. It was a sixth straight loss under Howley, who has been filling in for Warren Gatland on and off for the past year while the New Zealander undertakes his duties as British and Irish Lions coach for the tour of Australia starting in June.
"This group of players will keep playing and they showed great character," Howley said. "It's just making that right decision under pressure... we talked all week about starting well and we didn't." Gatland was in the crowd as a Lions assessor and cannot have failed to have been impressed by the enduring class of O'Driscoll, who could yet be Lions captain for the second time.
"He was brilliant but that's Brian," Ireland coach Declan Kidney said.
Ireland 30 (Simon Zebo, Cian Healy, Brian O'Driscoll tries; Jonathan Sexton 3 conversions, 3 penalties), Wales 22 (Alex Cuthbert, Leigh Halfpenny, Craig Mitchell tries; Halfpenny 2 conversions, penalty). HT: 23-3.