- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

DUBLIN (AP) - The boot of Jonathan Sexton came to the rescue as Ireland drew 16-16 with Wales in a Six Nations contest Sunday that featured dogged defense, pinpoint kicking and dollops of disappointment for both sides.

Injury-depleted Ireland, seeking a third straight Six Nations championship, came in as underdogs but raced to a 13-0 lead with an aggressive passing game directed by scrum half Conor Murray.

“You certainly can’t feel elated. A little bit deflated,” said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, who noted the team’s loss of eight usual starters to injury and suspension left him uneasy. “‘I did sense, to be honest, that we were a little bit vulnerable today.”

A powerful debut cap at blindside flanker for C.J. Stander, a South African who has resettled in Ireland, helped fire the Irish pack early. Two early drives inside the Welsh 22 ended in penalty conversions for Sexton. Jamie Heaslip appeared to surge across the goal line in the 25th minute, but French referee Jerome Garces couldn’t see the ball in the pileup.

From the resulting five-meter scrum, Murray twice dealt the ball quickly to an overloaded open side. Then he tricked Wales’ Justin Tipuric with a dummy pass to Stander and darted across the line himself for Ireland’s first try. Sexton’s conversion put Ireland in command at 13-0.

Momentum shifted when Keith Earls knocked Wales fullback Liam Williams to the turf, forcing a fumble and creating what would have been a dangerous Irish counterattack deep into Welsh territory. But Earls’ tackle was ruled illegal because he lifted Williams off the ground and, though he let go, Williams tumbled headfirst to the ground.

Welsh hearts had sunk as starting out-half Dan Biggar, his left ankle heavily taped from an injury in the game’s opening minutes, limped off after missing his only attempt. His replacement, Rhys Priestland, isn’t even the preferred kicker for his club, Bath.

But Priestland drilled his conversion off the Earls penalty for Wales’ first points. Wales found itself almost immediately back into Irish territory as Tipuric kicked the ball deftly into the Irish in-goal area and tackled Andrew Trimble to set up a string of Welsh scrums from the Irish five-meter line.

Taulupe Faletau scooped up one ball that squirted from a scrum and darted across the line, narrowly beating two Irish defenders. Priestland’s conversion narrowed Ireland’s lead to 13-10.

The Irish couldn’t maintain their intensity of attacking play in the second half, but tenacious defense kept Wales from scoring another try despite several possessions inside Ireland’s 22. Wales didn’t manage a single line break the entire game, while Ireland managed five.

Priestland drew the sides level with a penalty conversion in the 47th. He faced his toughest kick of the match in the 73rd as Dublin’s skies darkened and gusting winds strengthened. He struck the 40-meter attempt cleanly from the right corner of the field to give Wales its only lead.

That 16-13 advantage lasted less than two minutes. Sexton, who had just taken a blow to the head that required an on-field ice pack, lined up for a 45-meter shot. The wind-whipped ball sailed low and barely inside the right post.

Wales captain Sam Warburton said the result was a particular disappointment because Wales had hoped to keep alive a streak of winning Grand Slams in the Six Nations in the years following rugby World Cups. Wales managed the feat both in 2008 and 2012.

“It was a pretty fair result,” Warburton said, “but it wasn’t the Grand Slam finish we all hoped for.”

After Sexton’s game-tying kick, Ian Madigan immediately replaced him. Schmidt said Sexton suffered only bruising and was substituted as a precaution and because Madigan is deft at drop goals, a tactical possibility in the contest’s waning moments.

Priestland could have been the Welsh hero following Sexton’s equalizer, but he shanked his attempted drop goal wide left.

Ireland and Wales both won possession of the ball in extra time but neither could do anything with it before Murray was bundled into touch at midfield.

Wales coach Warren Gatland called the finish “pretty hair-raising for both sides.”

“You didn’t want the game to be decided on a stupid penalty or something soft. The result was a fair reflection of the game,” he said.

Gatland said it was too soon to say how long Biggar would be sidelined. He was in crutches after the game with a suspected high ankle strain.

Ireland and Wales share third place in the Six Nations table below England and France. Ireland travels to Paris and Wales plays Scotland at home for their next matches Saturday.

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