10/08/2011 03:52 EDT | Updated 12/07/2011 05:12 EST

Wales reaches first World Cup semifinal for 24 years with clinical 22-10 win over Ireland

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Wales reached the Rugby World Cup semifinals for the first time in 24 years on Saturday with a clinical 22-10 win over Six Nations rival Ireland.

Veteran winger Shane Williams gave Wales a third-minute lead with a try in the right corner and, other than a wobble five minutes after halftime when a Keith Earls try dragged Ireland back to 10-10, the Welsh never looked like losing to their more experienced opponents.

Scrumhalf Mike Phillips and centre Jonathan Davies produced touches of individual brilliance to round off team moves with tries that sent Wales through to face France in its first semifinal since the inaugural tournament in 1987.

The Welsh players simply took their chances while the Irish spurned theirs, kicking away possession and turning down early shots at goal in the wild Wellington wind.

"The boys knew that we were either going home Monday or we were here until the end of the tournament," Wales coach Warren Gatland said. "That was the motivation beforehand. Wales should be very proud of these boys for how hard they worked the past four or five months.

"We're not ready to go home yet."

Wales led for all but eight of 80 minutes and never trailed, but despite a formidable defence and ruthless finishing, could easily have been behind at halftime.

With the wind behind them, the Irish spurned three first-half shots at goal to kick for position, wasted two attacking positions through not releasing and flyhalf Ronan O'Gara twice punted over the dead ball line to give Wales a scrum.

"We had high hopes going into the game. We thought we were in good form and we just got outplayed on the day," Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll said. "We just felt we could keep the pressure on and the boys backed themselves to drive over. That cost us a bit. We spent a lot of time down in their 22 and only came away with three points."

Having survived those reprieves, Wales could have won by an even bigger score had Rhys Priestland not twice hit the post with penalty attempts.

But Priestland still finished with two conversions and fullback Leigh Halfpenny contributed the other points with a huge penalty into the wind from halfway.

Ireland looked to have started in the ascendancy — O'Gara putting in a huge hit on Halfpenny — but Wales got hold of the ball after a quick turnover by either side and calmly recycled through 13 phases to push upfield.

The Welsh were held up in front of the posts but spread the ball out to the right, where Williams went over for his ninth career World Cup try and 56th overall.

Williams, who is set to retire after the tournament, looked to be a sure recipient of the man-of-the-match award when he then saved a try. But although he held up Sean O'Brien to stop the flanker grounding for a score that would almost certainly have pulled Ireland level, Phillips took the title for an almost faultless performance that included the crucial second try.

Ireland finally got on the board when O'Gara kicked a penalty in front of the posts with 23 minutes gone, but Halfpenny's low, hard shot from halfway restored Wales' seven-point advantage.

The start of the second half heralded a five-minute period, arguably the only one of the match, when it seemed the result could go either way as Ireland attacked with the same intensity that Wales produced at the start of the first half.

Flanker Stephen Ferris picked the ball up off his toes as Conor Murray's well-intended but poorly executed reverse pass threatened to undo Ireland's efforts. But Ferris was able to flip the ball up to Tommy Bowe, who passed for fellow winger Earls to slide in and cross just before his trailing legs were pushed into touch.

The conversion made it 10-10 after 45 minutes, but Wales led again by the time the clock showed 50.

Phillips picked the ball up off the floor and sprinted down the blind, diving full stretch to ground one-handed in the corner under pressure from Gordon D'Arcy and Bowe for 15-10.

"It's an historic win for Wales today. the boys have been outstanding." Phillips said. "We were superb today. we've worked our socks off for this — we deserve the win."

Davies then scored his third tournament try, seemingly erring when he ignored an overlap on the 22 before darting between Earls and prop Cian Healy to cut in and score.

Ireland has never advanced beyond the World Cup quarterfinals, but went in against the younger Wales team full of confidence after a bruising 15-6 upset win over two-time champion Australia and a comprehensive victory over Six Nations rival Italy to top Pool C.

"It's disappointing, collectively and personally," said O'Driscoll, contemplating the end of his fourth World Cup campaign. "I won't get this opportunity again and that really sucks."