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 his own 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.
As for the Irish, they stayed in second place — three points behind England and a point ahead of Scotland.
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.
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 a left arm injury that clearly hampered influential scrumhalf Conor Murray until he went off in the 46th.
Sexton was targeted by the Welsh, even complaining about it to referee Wayne Barnes after returning to the field after his Head Injury Assessment. He ended the half in the sin-bin for killing the ball near his own line 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 near the line.
After reducing the gap to six points, Ireland looked like it would take the lead when its 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.
Relief was palpable inside the stadium, even more so when Roberts charged down Sexton's attempted clearance and pounced on the ball to barge over the line.