CARDIFF, Wales (AP)Ireland justified its status as rugby’s top-ranked country and the team to beat in the Six Nations by using a strong start to run over Wales with a 34-10 bonus-point victory on Saturday, spoiling Warren Gatland’s first match since his return as coach.

The 2023 tournament’s first game was virtually over as a contest inside 30 minutes, by which time Ireland had crossed for almost-identical tries by forwards Caelan Doris and James Ryan – through close-range carries – and a breakaway score by winger James Lowe after he intercepted Dan Biggar’s pass out wide just outside the Irish 22.

It gave the Irish a commanding 27-3 lead, the most points they’d ever put on Wales before halftime in championship history.

They never looked like relinquishing the lead under the roof at Principality Stadium, even as they dropped their intensity and a Welsh second-half rally contained a converted 46th-minute try from Liam Williams.

Any chance of a close finish was ended by Williams getting a yellow card for an illegal tackle on Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton in the 65th. It was during the fullback’s absence that flanker Josh van der Flier, the world’s best player in 2022, went over for a fourth try to secure a bonus point.

Ireland coach Andy Farrell wanted his players to experience – and savor – the white-hot occasion of a test match in Cardiff to prepare his team for what is to come in a Rugby World Cup year.

They passed the test with flying colors, their first championship win in Cardiff in 10 years. It befit a battle-hardened team that won a test series in New Zealand last year and followed that up with a clean sweep of autumn victories over South Africa, Fiji and Australia.

”These are the occasions you want to be part of, in this stadium against a tough side,” Ireland fullback Hugo Keenan said. ”They’re in transition but are always a serious team, especially here.

”We’re only taking things one game at a time. We won’t get caught up with anything.”

The Welsh fans were quietened early by the flurry of soft Irish tries but were at least roused by a fightback that will have pleased Gatland, even if his team was ultimately outclassed.

Wales had 14 turnovers – double the number of Ireland – and was blown away by the visitors’ fast start.

”We lacked discipline and accuracy in that first half and that put us under pressure,” Wales captain Ken Owens said. ”We also left a couple of scores out there which would have tightened the game up.

”We showed character in the second half, we kept pushing but mistakes at key moments let us down against the best team in the world.”

Asking Gatland to quickly turn around the fortunes of a team that has lost at home to Italy and Georgia in the past year was always asking a lot, even if Ireland hadn’t won on Welsh soil since 2013.

The Welsh play Scotland away and England at home in the next two rounds, a tough start for a team looking to regain its identity under the stewardship of Gatland.

Ireland, alternatively, heads confidently into a match next weekend against reigning champion France that could shape the destiny of the trophy.

Winning a forwards battle against Wales was a ”great platform” to build on, said Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony, whose team is seeking a first Six Nations title since 2018.

”The first 40 minutes, we were flowing nicely,” he said. ”We started well, we were very calm, attacked well, defense was good.

”We had some big moments to deny them probably two tries on our own line, with guys showing up for each other when it matters.”

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