Epic encounter provides fitting finale
March 21, 2009
We did it! Ronan O'Gara and Brian O'Driscoll parade the Six Nations silverware at the Millennium Stadium © Getty Images
Intense sporting drama from start to finish - the Six Nations could not want for a more thrilling and compelling finale.
Ireland came through the sternest test of their credentials to edge out Wales in a heart-pounding encounter to claim the Six Nations title, the Triple Crown and most importantly the Grand Slam - but it took blood, guts and a bit of luck.
The 'golden generation', spearheaded by captain Brian O'Driscoll, fly-half Ronan O'Gara and pack leader Paul O'Connell, silenced their doubters with a battling display to end a 61-year drought for their second clean sweep and write their names alongside those of Jackie Kyle, Karl Mullen and the other heroes of 1948.
With such high stakes, drama and tension were guaranteed but few would have predicted the quest for the Slam coming down to the final kick of the Championship - Paddy Wallace may have opted against returning home if his last-gasp infringement had cost his side but thankfully for him, Wales fly-half Stephen Jones came up agonisingly short with his last-gasp penalty attempt that would have clinched victory and the Triple Crown.
Of course, a narrow defeat would have brought the men in green their first Championship success for 24 years but by that stage anything but a win would have broken the hearts of the reported 25,000 Irish fans in the Welsh capital and the millions watching events unfold from the comfort of home across the Irish Sea.
For those who may question the greatness of O'Driscoll in particular need only look at the way he carried his side to victory in the biggest game of his career. With his side on the brink of another high-profile failure he inspired a turnaround with a try on his way to a Man of the Match performance. But he must share the accolades with his fly-half who survived a physical battering before dusting himself off and slotting the all-important drop goal. O'Connell too was inspirational - harnessing the power and volatile desire of the Irish pack to get his side over the line.
O'Gara was targeted by Wales from the opening whistle as they looked to rattle Ireland's key man and a missed penalty after just two minutes suggested their ploy was working with the No.10 struggling to find composure under intense scrutiny.
In fact we had to wait half an hour for the game's first score but never had a 0-0 scoreline provided so much enthralling action. Both sides showed a refreshing willingness to play expansive rugby and although the execution was not always there, the intent was commendable considering the occasion.
The tension was tangible and tempers boiled over once or twice in a heated opening period but players soon realised they were better conserving their energy for what was turning into a war of attrition. There were errors and turnovers as nervous energy took its toll but it was not just the pressure of the occasion - some awesome defence from both sides brought reward.
Wales edged their noses in front with two Jones penalties in a bruising first half and Ireland, having started brighter than anyone would have expected, had slipped into a dangerously conservative approach. But as with last week's win over Scotland, a few minutes in the company of coach Declan Kidney at half-time appeared to work wonders.
Ireland had re-discovered their verve come the re-start with O'Driscoll leading the way. The influential centre helped carve the original opening in the Welsh defence before eventually squirming his way over for the game's first try. This was not a searing break from the pages of the O'Driscoll scrapbook but a one yard surge towards history - but equally brilliant.
O'Gara took the lead from his skipper's cue, having re-discovered his touch. A delightful kick released winger Tommy Bowe and he was away for his side's second score. But in terms of drama we were not even started.
Irish indiscipline was punished by Jones who kicked two further penalties to bring his side back within range. As the clock ticked down you sensed there was more twists and turns to come and we were not disappointed.
Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips powered through Ireland's defence, shrugging off tired tackles, into the 22 from where Jones would slot a drop goal to put his side in the lead once more. A re-write of history was on the cards but Ireland were not to be denied their date with destiny.
A rare mistake from Jones, kicking straight into touch, handed Wales field position and from the subsequent lineout the Irish forwards summoned one more drive to give their fly-half the best opportunity to rescue their dream. Enter O'Gara, who drop kicked his side to within reach of glory. All they had to do was kill the remaining minute left on the clock. But Wallace's enthusiasm got the better of him at a ruck to offer Wales one last chance to crash the party - but Jones' effort came up just short.
Wales gave their all for an expectant home crowd but were beaten by the better side wholly deserving of their success. Too many of their players failed to deliver a big match performance. Ireland were hungrier, winning their personal battles across the park, and dominating as a team at the lineout and in the loose to end a long wait to be crowned the best side in the northern hemisphere.
The relief was there for all to see at the final whistle - most notably on the face of Wallace.
In the end this was not to be Wales' day and as a result Irish eyes will be smiling long into the night.
Munster, No.8s, the imploding Australians, wonderful Glasgow and Lancaster's dilemma - it is Monday Maul time