Ireland secure historic Grand Slam
March 21, 2009
Tommy Bowe escapes to score Ireland's second try at the Millennium Stadium
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Ireland won a historic Grand Slam at the Millennium Stadium with a 17-15 triumph over former champions Wales, ending a 61-year wait for the grandest prize in European rugby.
Their amazing achievement was secured in the most nerve-shredding fashion, with a drop-goal from Ronan O'Gara eventually sealing the win after Welsh fly-half Stephen Jones had seen a potentially Triple Crown-winning penalty drop tantalisingly short of the uprights in the last kick of the game.
Ireland had surged into a 14-6 lead moments after half-time thanks to tries from Tommy Bowe and their inspirational skipper Brian O'Driscoll. The boot of Jones, and some excellent play from the Welsh backs late in the game, had kept Wales in contention throughout but Ireland were not to be denied.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney selected a side brimming with experience. O'Driscoll lead the side and it fell to Munster lock Paul O'Connell to lift his mighty pack of forwards. O'Gara, the Six Nations' all time leading scorer, wore No.10.
Wales were rocked by the loss of No.8 Andy Powell before kick-off, with their captain, Ryan Jones, shifting from the blindside to No.8 and Scrlets flanker Dafydd Jones stepping into the starting XV.
In a Championship decider that had been earmarked as a future classic in the build-up, tempers flared immediately. Irish lock Donncha O'Callaghan took exception to a trip on O'Gara by Ryan Jones and after the two players were separated O'Gara missed his opening shot at goal, but Ireland hit their straps immediately after.
Following a scything break from Gordon D'Arcy, O'Gara sent a high ball out on to the Wales wing. When the ball was knocked on by Lee Byrne, Ireland attacked from the scrum. Despite a strong shove from Wales Ireland soldiered forward in the time honoured tradition of Heineken Cup era Munster. A huge hit from Ian Gough on Ireland hooker Jerry Flannery turned ball over for Wales and following some end-to-end play Wales were awarded a penalty to clear their lines.
Wales enjoyed their first meaningful possession following clean lineout ball won by Alun-Wyn Jones, skipper Jones carrying excellently in the absence of Powell. The game's intensity was all that could have been expected, and Wales targeted the channel of O'Gara mercilessly in the opening phases. As their possession increased Wales were guilty of playing too much rugby behind the gainline, their offloads gaining little in the tight space afforded by the aggressive Irish defence.
The nerves appeared to show in O'Gara as the half reached its midway point, two of his kicks sailing out on the full in as many minutes. As he faltered, O'Connell soared however. The giant lock's lineout work began to tell on the Welsh throw and he lifted his pack with a series of picked-off throws.
Wales suffered another major injury blow after half-an-hour, Byrne hobbling off after a collision with Luke Fitzgerald. Jamie Roberts entered the fray, with Henson shifting from centre to fullback. Almost as soon as Byrne had left the field, Wales went ahead. Stephen Jones slotted his first penalty attempt after Ireland were pinged for not rolling away in the tackle. Jones doubled Wales' lead soon after with a beautifully struck penalty from 50 metres, taking a 6-0 lead into half-time.
Wales' defence was shredded after only moments of the second period. Tommy Bowe burst on to some quick turnover ball, racing into the Welsh 22. After a poor decision from Leamy, attacking a non-existent blindside and allowing Wales to re-form, O'Gara tested Mark Jones out wide. From the lineout, Ireland methodically worked the phases through their pack, with echoes of the Toulouse line under siege in the 2008 Heineken Cup final, before a single pair of hands reached out to score. Those hands belonged to O'Driscoll, and Ireland's hopes were revived in his latest feat of heroism. O'Gara's kick gave Ireland the lead after only three minutes of the second-half.
They were in dreamland seconds later. A chip from Gordon D'Arcy bounced perfectly into the hands of Bowe, who blazed clear of the Welsh defence for an eight-point lead. The pendulum had most definitely swung, but the game showed no signs of slowing down. Wales moved downfield after a penalty only for another basic error, a knock on by Mike Phillips, to end their progress. O'Callaghan lost his head again however, and was penalised for some word out of hand to Phillips. Stephen Jones landed the penalty with the help of a post.
Wales then asserted their dominance in the scrum once again, Adam Jones winning a penalty against Marcus Horan. At the ensuing lineout Heaslip was pinged for obstruction, allowing Stephen Jones to draw Wales back to within two points after 55 minutes. Gavin Henson missed a long-range shot at goal soon after to keep Ireland's lead in tact.
Ireland relied heavily on a kicking game as the game wore on and Wales could have been in serious trouble had the accuracy matched the quantity of the kicking. With tension rising to almost painful levels, it was looking as though one mistake would decide the game.
As Wales ramped up the pressure, Shane Williams set off on a trademark run. He beat two men before slipping, only for Mark Jones to continue his work with a driving run. With Ireland securing possession the danger looked to be gone, only for Mike Phillips to set off on a loping run after his forwards had secured the lineout, the Ospreys No.9 smashing through four tackles before eventually being hauled down. As the ball was spread wide Jones regained the lead with a calm drop-goal.
Then, the crucial mistake arrived. From the kick-off Stephen Jones banged the ball in to touch, after it was passed back in to his 22. From the lineout, Ireland rolled a maul that was stopped by Wales, before O'Gara etched his name into the history books. Taking the pass from his old mate Peter Stringer, the ball bisected the posts from his drop-goal.
The drama was not over however. With the final play of the game, Wales were awarded one last penalty on the half-way line. Stephen Jones, with the weight of the stadium on his shoulders, heaved the ball towards the posts. It dropped agonisingly short, ending a 61 year wait for an Irish Grand Slam and ensuring immortality for some genuinely wonderful players.
Wales: Byrne; M Jones, Shanklin, Henson, S Williams; S Jones, Phillips; Jenkins, Rees, A. Jones, Gough, A Jones, D Jones, M Williams, R Jones (capt).
Replacements: Roberts for Byrne (30), Bennett for Rees (55), Charteris for Gough (55). Not Used: Yapp, J Thomas, Fury, Hook.
Ireland: Kearney; Bowe, B O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Fitzgerald; O'Gara, O'Leary; Horan, Flannery, Hayes, O'Callaghan, O'Connell, Ferris, D Wallace, Heaslip.
Replacements: Murphy for Kearney (66), P Wallace for Fitzgerald (76), Stringer for O'Leary (69), Best for Flannery (68), Leamy for Ferris (blood, 7). Not Used: Court, M O'Driscoll.
Man of the Match: Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Touch judges: David Pearson (England), Stuart Terheege (England)
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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