Ireland wipe the smile off Gatland's face

Ireland win the Triple Crown in Dublin with a comfortable 27-12 victory over Wales.

Paul O'Connell, left, and Cian Healy, second right, combine to prevent Jonathan Thomas, with ball, charging through the Ireland defence during yesterday's Six Nations game.
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He who laughs last laughs the loudest, and Warren Gatland, the burly Wales head coach, might be feeling as though the whole of Ireland is chuckling at his expense this morning. The New Zealander had tried his best to defuse the atmosphere surrounding his return to Ireland by claiming the fierce barbs directed his way by the Irish media in the lead up to the game had caused hilarity amongst his Welsh charges.

However, there was little doubt Gatland will have been chastened by the vitriol that spewed forth, which included him being deemed as "snappy as a menopausal warthog". There has been little love lost between Gatland and some sections of the Irish press corps since he departed his role as Ireland's head coach in 2001, when he was replaced by the man who was hitherto his assistant, Eddie O'Sullivan.

Wales versus Ireland matches have been infused with added significance since he took over the reins of the Welsh, hence the pre-match baiting. He attempted to laugh off the jibes, but he was forced to suffer the final indignity when Wales were comprehensively outplayed by his former side last night. In addition to the Gatland-bashing, much had been made of the mouth-watering battle between the two Ospreys wingers, Tommy Bowe, of Ireland, and Shane Williams, the Welsh flier.

Yet it was the least heralded winger on the field, Keith Earls, who eventually stole the show. Until the start of this Six Nations championship, the 22-year-old Munsterman had been best known to many for his error-strewn debut at centre in the opening match of last summer's British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa, a tour on which Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley, the Wales coaching triumvirate, were part of the management. The performance of Earls, the youngest member of the squad, in the first tour game against a Royal XV, was compounded by a shoulder injury he sustained.

Since then he has reinvented himself as a winger of substance, making the most of the injury-induced absence of Luke Fitzgerald by scoring three tries in the past two games in the green shirt. The Irish stole a march on their guests midway through the first phase following indiscipline from Lee Byrne, the Wales full-back. While he spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin, Earls and Tomas O'Leary, the scrum-half, took advantage of the added space by touching down tries.

The Irish should have been out of sight by the half-time whistle, but Johnny Sexton allowed them a glimmer of hope by way of his wayward radar. The fly-half was ruling with the ball in hand, yet was less convincing with the boot, passing up eight points in the first-half, which eventually ended 16-6 to his side. Wales had a fine chance to reduce the arrears early in the second-half, but botched their opportunity after the stand-in captain, Martyn Williams, opted against a gettable three points in favour of a scrum close to the Irish line.

Once that chance went, the away side's problems were exacerbated as Earls helped himself to his second, and Ireland's third try. Sexton's travails continued off the kicking tee, but he was coming into his own out of hand, and sealed the victory when he dropped a goal with four minutes left. The preceding days had not brought solely bad news for Gatland. The evening before the game Gavin Henson's pop star partner, Charlotte Church, announced on BBC TV show Friday Night with Jonathan Ross that he was ready to return to the game.

The dual Grand Slam-winning centre is believed to still be a key part of the coach's plans, even though he has been on indefinite unpaid leave and has not played since March 2009. How Gatland could have done with him as the Irish eased to their triumph at Croke Park.