Wales keep Grand Slam dream alive
March 8, 2008
Shane Williams dives in to score the winning try
© Getty Images
Wales secured the Triple Crown and kept their Grand Slam hopes alive with a deserved 16-12 victory over Ireland at Croke Park. Wales also strengthened their grip on the RBS 6 Nations title and they now face a showdown with France next Saturday at the Millennium Stadium.
Wales had not won in Dublin for eight years and spent 20 minutes down to 14 men after Mike Phillips and then Martyn Williams were sin-binned. Ronan O'Gara scored all of Ireland's points - but sparkling winger Shane Williams scored the decisive try to equal Gareth Thomas' Welsh record of 40.
Wales were forced into a late change ahead of their Triple Crown showdown with Ireland after hooker Huw Bennett was struck down by flu. Bennett was withdrawn late this morning and replaced by Matthew Rees, with Cardiff Blues hooker Gareth Williams promoted onto the bench.
The loss of Bennett, who has been a more reliable lineout operator than Rees this season, was an untimely blow to Wales' hopes of wrestling the Triple Crown trophy from Irish hands. The build-up to the match had been dominated by Warren Gatland's return to Dublin to lock horns with Eddie O'Sullivan, the man who replaced him as Ireland coach in controversial circumstances seven years ago.
Gatland is still sore about the episode and the history provided an extra edge in the build-up to what was set to be a decisive clash at Croke Park. Wales came into the game unbeaten, top of the RBS 6 Nations table and in the box seat to win the title - but Ireland needed a victory to keep their own championship aspirations alive.
O'Sullivan was forced to move Rob Kearney to full-back after Geordan Murphy and Girvan Dempsey were both ruled out through injury. The knock-on effect saw Shane Horgan promoted to the starting line-up and Tommy Bowe switched to the left wing while lock Paul O'Connell and hooker Rory Best returned to the pack.
Gatland's major selection decision was to retain Stephen Jones at fly-half ahead of James Hook and start with Mike Phillips instead of Dwayne Peel at scrum-half. Lock Alun-Wyn Jones returned to the side after recovering from an ankle injury but gave away the first penalty for killing the ball inside a minute.
With Ireland playing into a strong breeze, O'Gara opted not to kick for the posts and O'Connell claimed a solid first lineout. The Irish opted for the route one approach, keeping the ball tight and hammering away through the forwards. Best found room for a half break and the pressure eventually told on Wales, who conceded a second penalty under their own posts and this time O'Gara slotted the simple kick.
Wales turned the ball over on their first possession but worked an overlap after Lee Byrne's confident take from an O'Gara up and under with Mark Jones and Tom Shanklin breaking into the Irish 22. Ireland cleared but the Welsh lineout was functioning well - much better than in Rees' last start against Italy - and they kept the pressure on.
John Hayes conceded a penalty at the scrum for not binding properly but Stephen Jones skewed his kick wide. It was the first shot at goal Wales had missed this Six Nations. O'Gara then pushed Ireland further ahead with a second penalty after referee Wayne Barnes spotted Jonathan Thomas deliberately falling onto the wrong side.
Wales were kicking infield to keep the ball alive but they lacked accuracy in possession and wasted two promising platforms with careless knock-ons. O'Gara was targeting space in behind Shane Williams and his masterful kicking game kept Wales pinned deep in their own half.
Rees received a huge let-off when O'Connell was penalised as he intercepted a Welsh lineout five metres from the tryline. Wales then had Phillips to thank for a huge try-saving tackle on Horgan after the powerful Irish winger had charged through Byrne. Television match official Dudley Phillips confirmed Horgan had grounded the ball a fraction short of the line.
From that let-off, Williams tried to spark a counter-attack and the Welsh moved down field to earn a penalty at the lineout which Jones slotted to get Wales on the board. Almost immediately Jones had the chance to draw Wales level after Eoin Reddan was penalised for offside at the base of a scrum but the Wales fly-half shanked another effort wide.
But Wales finally managed inject some pace into their attacking game, first through Henson and then Shane Williams. The diminutive winger produced one neat offload form the tackle and Alun-Wyn Jones almost sent Mark Jones steaming clear but his basketball pass just eluded him. Byrne was halted after Shanklin's burst down the left flank but deft handling from prop Adam Jones and Ian Gough allowed Ryan Jones to storm forwards as Ireland were opened up again.
Wales worked a huge overlap wide on the right but the golden chance was wasted when Stephen Jones' long pass towards Martyn Williams drifted forward. O'Gara's clearance was poor and Wales kept hammering away but could not break through the resolute Irish defence.
Wales were prepared to cut their losses with a shot at goal - but the penalty was reversed when Mike Phillips dropped a knee into Marcus Horan's ribs. A man short and with Shane Williams filling in at scrum-half, Wales adopted the same tactics as Ireland after the restart by keeping play tight and the ball away from the Irish. Slowly they marched upfield, eating up both the yards and eating time off the sin-bin clock.
Williams was a sparky presence behind the scrum and Ryan Jones almost escaped the Irish defence with a trademark charging run. Williams tried one run too many just 10 metres from the tryline and lost possession but Kearney's clearance was poor and Wales kept the pressure on.
Horan was penalised for offside and this time Wales did not waste their chance to draw level, as Jones slotted his second penalty. Henson has hardly employed his giant boot this tournament but he unleashed a massive 70-metre kick to touch to pin Ireland back into their 22.
Not only did Wales survive their stint with 14 men, they profited from it. And there was more to come once Phillips returned to the fray. Martyn Williams ripped possession away from Kearney and Shane Williams raced onto Stephen Jones' pass, fended off Andrew Trimble's attempted tackle and raced past three Irish defenders to score in the corner.
The try drew Williams level with Gareth Thomas as Wales' joint-record try-scorer with 40. It was his first against Ireland but his 11th in the last eight Tests. Stephen Jones then defied the wind by threading a magnificent touchline conversion to open Wales a seven-point advantage.
Ireland were at sixes and sevens and Wales could have scored again after a tremendous break from Phillips. Mark Jones was halted short of the line. Ireland needed to up the tempo. Apart from the first 20 minutes they had offered little - and they responded to the challenge.
Jamie Heaslip galloped into the Welsh 22 and although Stephen Jones cleaned up well, play was called back for an Irish penalty after Martyn Williams tripped Reddan off the ball and became the second Welshman to spend 10 minutes in the sin-bin. This time Wales could not control the game as well when a man short and O'Gara converted two quick penalties to bring Ireland back within a point.
With the game opening up in the final 20 minutes Gatland made a key decision and sent on Hook for Stephen Jones. Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll limped off with 10 minutes remaining and was replaced in the centre by Luke Fitzgerald.
Shanklin almost fashioned an opening but the decisive moment for Wales came six minutes from time when replacement Irish hooker Bernard Jackman was penalised for taking out Ryan Jones. Hook landed the penalty and Wales strengthened their grip on the Six Nations title and moved to within 80 minutes of a second Grand Slam in four years.
Ireland (6) 12
Wales (3) 16
Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), G Henson (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Llanelli Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), AW Jones (Ospreys), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt).
Replacements: G Williams (Blues), D Jones (Ospreys), I Evans (Ospreys), G Delve (Gloucester), D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets), J Hook (Ospreys), S Parker (Ospreys).
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); S Horgan (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, captain), A Trimble (Ulster),T Bowe (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Wasps); M Horan (Munster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), D Leamy (Munster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: B Jackman (Leinster), T Buckley (Munster), M O'Driscoll (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli), P Stringer (Munster), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster).
Joe Simpson talks to Charlie Morgan about loss, Wasps and being England's game-breaker