The games that shaped a decade
December 15, 2009
Lions fullback Rob Kearney lets it all sink in following defeat to South Africa © Getty Images
As the decade draws to a close, Scrum Sevens dons the thinking cap and selects the seven games that have thrilled, shocked and uplifted the rugby world since the turn of the millennium. Strap yourself in.
Ireland 17-15 Wales, Six Nations, Millennium Stadium, 2009
Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam was a cathartic release for a squad that had been destined for a chapter in history marked 'so near and yet so far'. Triple Crown successes in 2004, 2006 and 2007 had been celebrated accordingly but all Irish eyes were on ending their long wait for a clean sweep of Europe's top competition.
Jackie Kyle had inspired Ireland's last Grand Slam in 1948 and the great fly-half was on hand in Cardiff to watch Ireland scrap to a brutal victory over Wales in Cardiff. The ferocity of the tackling slowed the first-half to a tense slugfest, which yielded a 6-0 lead for Wales thanks to the boot of Stephen Jones.
The second-half burst into life and the running was coming from the men in green. The inspirational Brian O'Driscoll burrowed over to score a try almost identical to the one that sunk England weeks earlier before wing Tommy Bowe scythed through the Wales defence from a Ronan O'Gara cross-kick. Jones kept Wales in touch from the kicking tee, but O' Gara found a drop-goal to secure the narrowest of leads with moments remaining. Every great story needs a villain and Jones stepped up to take a penalty with the last kick of the game. The ball fell just short, handing Ireland their victory.
Australia 35-39 New Zealand, Tri-Nations, Stadium Australia, 2000
First, some stats. This game was watched by a world record crowd of 109,874. The All Blacks scored 24 unanswered points in the opening nine minutes. Australia responded with 24 unanswered points of their own before the half-time whistle. There were 10 tries in all, with the decider coming after 83 minutes of thrilling action.
The try went to the big fella, Jonah Lomu. A man born for the big stage, he settled a game packed with enough incident and drama to fill an entire Tri-Nations series. The opening salvo from the All Blacks shocked the huge crowd, with Christian Cullen, Pita Alatini and Tana Umaga all crossing the Wallabies' line. The World Champions responded with the vigour that brought them their most dominant streak over the All Blacks in Bledisloe Cup history, with Stirling Mortlock, Chris Latham and Joe Roff biting back to level the scores.
Jeremy Paul and Justin Marshall traded second-half tries before Jonah set the seal on things by barrelling along the touchline to score out wide. The Wallabies responded by taking another bona-fide classic 24-23 in their next meeting, with skipper John Eales kicking a last-gasp penalty for the eventual Tri-Nations champions.
Australia 17-20 England, Rugby World Cup final, Stadium Australia, 2003
Clive Woodward may have a lot to answer for following the debacle of the 2005 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, but his enduring achievement in the sport came with England's triumph at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
Martin Johnson led one of the all-time great packs; Jonny Wilkinson provided the finishing touch with an arching drop-goal to break the hearts of the Wallabies, who were within touching distance of becoming the first side to retain the Webb Ellis trophy. Elton Flatley and Wlikinson had engaged in a game of cat and mouse, trading penalties to complement a try apiece from Lote Tuqiri and Jason Robinson.
The finish has become iconic, as Wilkinson rocked back in the pocket and ended the south's long dominance of the World Cup.
France 18-24 Wales, Six Nations, Stade de France, 2005
A burst every bit as good as Ireland's four years later helped Mike Ruddock's furiously entertaining Wales to the pivotal victory in their 2005 Grand Slam, over reigning champions France in Saint-Denis. The visitors were 15-6 down at half-time and reeling from a ferocious spell of Gallic flair, but openside Martyn Williams emerged as Wales' saviour.
His burst of two tries just after the break epitomised the attacking intent of this Welsh side, one coming after a rollicking break from fly-half Stephen Jones, who would seal the win with a nerveless penalty and drop-goal. His joyous hack behind to end the game also closed out a painfully intense closing period as the French scrum inched closer to the Welsh posts and a penalty try. It never arrived and weeks later Wales celebrated their first Grand Slam since 1978 and the vintage side of Gareth, Gerald, JPR, Phil et al.
Sharks 19-20 Bulls, Super 14 final, Kings Park, 2007
A matter of months later, South Africa were lifting their second Rugby World Cup title with victory over England in Paris but it's the Bulls' thrilling finish against their intense rivals, the Sharks, on their home patch that lingers in the memory.
The cast was the same, Bryan Habana scored the clinching try, Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield waded in up front and Percy Montgomery chipped in from the kicking tee. It was the first time that a South African franchise had won the tournament since its Super 10 origins and the final cemented Habana's place in the top-tier of world stars. His break through a tired Sharks line handed Derick Hougaard the chance to win the tournament from the tee, and he did just that.
Cardiff Blues 26-26 Leicester Tigers, Leicester won 7-6 on penalties, Heineken Cup semi-final, Millennium Stadium, 2009
A genuine one-off, Cardiff's heartbreaking exit from the 2009 Heineken Cup was as emotionally draining an occasion as you could have imagined. Two tries in the last six minutes from Jamie Roberts and Tom James, with touchline conversions to boot from Ben Blair, had hauled the Blues back from the dead after Scott Hamilton and Geordan Murphy had all-but sealed the Tigers' place in the final.
The penalty shootout that followed was a painstaking study rarely seen in the oval-ball game and after James had hooked wide a potentially winning kick for the Blues when Johne Murphy faltered, it fell to Martyn Williams to keep his side in it. The venerable flanker pulled his shot horribly wide and Leicester No.8 Jordan Crane did not err when his chance came to secure the spoils.
South Africa 28-25 British & Irish Lions, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, 2009
It had everything. Schalk Burger sparked one of the year's enduring controversies with his attack on the eyes of Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney scored a momentous try for the Lions and Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen and Jaque Fourie did the same for the Boks.
Stephen Jones kept the Lions in it with a majestic 20-point haul as the game reached massive, dangerous levels of physicality. The winning points came from the boot of Morne Steyn after a now infamous tackle in the air from Ronan O'Gara, the Bulls pivot disappointing an army of travelling fans and drawing to a close a game that a stands scrutiny at the end of this decade, and for that matter any other.
Honourable mentions go to: Either of Munster's magnificent Heineken Cup final victories in 2006 or 2008 or for that matter their miracle match against Gloucester, the Scarlets turning over Toulouse 41-34 in 2007, Fiji breaking Welsh hearts at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Dan Luger helping England past the Wallabies in 2000, the British & Irish Lions' clashes with Australia in 2001, Nick Evans dropping Harlequins to victory over Stade Francais in 2009, Wales ending their Twickenham hoodoo in 2008, The Bulls crushing the Chiefs in the 2009 Super 14 final, South Africa taking the points away from Dunedin in 2008, New Zealand seeing off Wales after an emotional haka stand-off later that year, Ireland thrashing England at Croke Park in 2007 and Italy routing Scotland at Murrayfield. Here's to the next 10 years.
Stay tuned to ESPNscrum for our Players of the Decade - coming soon!
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