Wales' George North, left, scores the first try during the Six Nations Rugby match between Wales and Ireland, at the Principality Stadium, in Cardiff, Wales, Friday March 10, 2017. (David Davies/PA via AP)
CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — George North responded to criticism from his own coaches by scoring two tries for Wales in a 22-9 win over Ireland in the Six Nations on Friday, handing England the chance to clinch the title with a game to spare.
England, on a national-record run of 17 straight victories, will retain the championship by beating Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday.
North, the strapping right winger, crossed in each half under the Principality Stadium roof at the end of a week when he was given a "warning" by the Welsh management for a poor defensive display in the recent loss to Scotland.
His second try, in the 44th minute when Ireland flyhalf Jonathan Sexton was in the sin-bin, put Wales 15-6 ahead but the Irish dominated the final half-hour as they sought to keep alive realistic hopes of winning the title.
A penalty from Sexton brought Ireland within a converted try but backs-to-the-wall defense kept Wales ahead, and replacement Jamie Roberts collected Taulupe Faletau's charge-down to clinch victory with a 79th-minute try.
Wales rebounded from two straight losses that led to soul-searching in the country's national sport. Interim coach Rob Howley was particularly pleased at stopping Ireland — the competition's most prolific team with 13 tries — from crossing the line in what he called an "80-minute performance" from his side.
"We outscored one of the best sides in world rugby 3-0 (in tries)," Howley said. "Joe Schmidt's side predictable? Come on, they're a quality attacking side. It's a testament to our defense."
As for the Irish, they stayed in second place — three points behind England and a point ahead of Scotland — but their title ambitions are all-but-mathematically over.
"We are no longer in the hunt to win the championship," Schmidt said. "But we can still finish in the top half of the Six Nations. That's incredibly important for us."
Ireland conceded 10 points while Sexton was in the bin for killing the ball on his own try-line just before halftime. The flyhalf also went off with his latest head injury midway through the first half, returning nine minutes later.
Wales was under pressure after its scoreless second-half display against Scotland two weeks ago, with North taking much of the flak — particularly from his own defense coach Shaun Edwards — for conceding a try on his wing at Murrayfield.
His response? To score one try from a typically rampaging carry, and another try with an easy run into the right corner. He also produced some crunching tackles, one of which removed opposite winger Simon Zebo's boot.
"We all have bad games, and George was the first man to put his hand up after the Scotland game and say, 'I need to do better,'" Howley said.
Sexton had just left the field with an innocuous-looking head injury when North put Wales 5-3 ahead in the 20th minute. Scott Williams broke the Irish defensive line, scrumhalf Rhys Webb took the ball on before fullback Leigh Halfpenny fed North. Without breaking his stride, North powered down the right wing, cut inside Paddy Jackson — Sexton's temporary replacement — and barged over.
Sexton and Jackson kicked penalties either side of North's try but Ireland lacked rhythm and shape to its attacking play, not helped by Conor Murray getting a "stinger" injury in his left shoulder that hampered him until he left in the 46th.
Sexton was targeted by the Welsh, even complaining about it to referee Wayne Barnes after returning from his Head Injury Assessment. He ended the half in the sin-bin in the 38th as Wales attacked in the left corner, and Halfpenny kicked the resulting penalty to give Wales an 8-6 halftime lead.
Ireland was still a man down when North crossed for his second try, the winger given lots of space on the blind side to cruise over unchallenged from Webb's pass following a rolling maul.
After reducing the gap to six points, Ireland's attacks were predictable but it looked like the visitors would take the lead when their maul rumbled to the Wales try-line. Center Robbie Henshaw arrived to add some ballast but joined the maul illegally, in front of the ball carrier, and was penalized.
"It's incredibly frustrating to get over the line and not get the ball down," Schmidt said.
Relief was palpable inside the stadium, even more so when Faletau charged down Sexton's attempted clearance and fellow replacement Roberts pounced on the ball to barge over the line.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80