The Ireland class of 2009 became only the second from the Emerald Isle to claim a European clean sweep of rugby on Saturday, beating Wales 17-15 in Cardiff for the first Irish Grand Slam since 1948, courtesy of Ronan O’Gara’s (Wearing his Adidas Predator powerswerve rugby boots) late drop goal.
An extraordinary finale saw Wales fly-half Stephen Jones miss a late long-range penalty to hand Ireland their crown in a gripping game of rugby.
By the end, most were on their knees. Some Irish even kissed the turf! The entirety of Irish rugby, save a few octogenarians in the stands, experienced a new level of sporting euphoria, shared an experience hitherto only dreamed about. They all now know what it is to be a Grand Slam champion – and having been a matter of inches away from losing it! Most looked as though they didn’t know how to react or what to do.
Welsh were also on their knees, heads bowed at some accursed luck. They had played it right, got themselves into a winning position, but fallen foul of fate and all her little ways and wiles. The Grand Slam class of 2008 ends up fourth in this Six Nations, a bizarre result for a team that many believe were only a couple of rough breaks away from winning the two matches they lost.
The Six Nations served up a finale of pure tactical rugby, played at a level of intensity that only the truly best can produce. Ireland kept it cool, prodding for territory and nurturing the charity from a creaky Welsh line-out. In all, they nicked nine Welsh throws, probably the key statistic, especially considering the territory and possession Wales could have had with their 14-5 penalty count.
The Welsh played flatter and wider and with the hands, moving it back and forth across the Millennium Stadium expanses and waiting their turn. Something had to give.
The intensity boiled over in the first minute. Ronan O’Gara collided vaguely with Ryan Jones but went down as though struck by an iron bar. Donncha O’Callaghan raced to his fly-half’s aid and there were two huge men eyeball to eyeball, each clutching fistfuls of the other’s jersey, neither to be persuaded to let go.
Referee Wayne Barnes – once again, exemplary – eventually managed to break the strangleholds and award the penalty, but O’Gara pulled it left.
It could have been just a random act, but it soon became very apparent that ‘turnstile’, as many fans have nicknamed Ireland’s pivot, was the target of some special Welsh care and loving attention. Three very distinct times one of the more sizeable Welsh runners was given a ball while on a bee-line towards than number ten channel. O’Gara coped well enough, but two subsequent kicks straight to touch belied a shaken core.
So with O’Gara stuck in his pocket, the Welsh wrought control. They forced more penalties and began to make inroads into Irish territory – the visitors had dominated the territory early on with O’Gara’s and Kearney’s kicking. There were clean breaks by Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and Gavin Henson (Wearing his Nike Mercurial Vapor boots), there were half-breaks from others, final passes which never stuck but which promised to. While Ireland contented themselves with a patient holding operation, the Welsh went in search of the win.
The pace and width to the Welsh game never broke the green line, but it stretched it enough for the discipline to crack. Ireland ended up conceding seven first-half penalties, five in the final thirteen minutes of the half. Stephen Jones converted two of them for a 6-0 half-time scoreline.
The second half started with a green flourish, one which opened the game gloriously up for five short minutes. First O’Driscoll burrowed over in the manner of the darkest dirtiest hooker from the base of a ruck, then Tommy Bowe latched onto a nasty bounce and steam through a turnstile-like Henson tackle and go under the posts. Not only did it leave Ireland well in Grand Slam position, but it left the Welsh needing 21 points to secure the Six Nations.
Fourteen points in four minutes. The momentum had swung to Ireland and the title was theirs.
Wales kept it open. Mark Jones went for a run before being bundled into touch. Again, Ireland started to ship penalties. Again, Jones landed two of them to reduce the arrears to 14-12. The longer Wales could keep the pace up, the more you felt that Ireland might crack one or two times too many.
But Wales could not keep the pace up.The kicks to deep became more speculative, the power fell away from the charges. Ireland’s pack stuffed the ball up-jumper and bided their time. Welsh runners descended deeper into isolation and the stream of penalties began to flow the other way. You could feel the forces of nature turning with it.
Ireland maintained their tactical kicking, also looking to chip to Bowe’s wing on many an occasion – just the number of occasions Bowe seemed to be left unmarked. Geordan Murphy came on for the final 20 minutes, bringing his brilliant boot into play.
But then the old heads went missing. Murphy spilled a pass from Stringer which he should never have had to take. Wales earned a scrum and breaks from Phillips and Mark Jones helped Stephen Jones land a drop goal with five to go.
But fate was not yet done toying with the Celts. The Irish marched their way into the Welsh 22, once again with the line-out as their weapon of choice. Back came the ball to O’Gara in the pocket and he struck as clinical a drop goal as you could imagine over the posts.
Back came Wales, sweeping this way and that and heading upfield. They got into Ireland’s half. Wayne Barnes stuck out his arm. A penalty! A chance for the Welsh to spoil the Irish party.
Stephen Jones teed it up, from 48 metres out, from where he had landed on in the first half. He struck it well. It rose. It carried. But it began to fade. As if the ghosts of failures past themselves were blowing it back, the ball dropped slowly, excruciatingly for the Welsh, gloriously for the Irish, from the air and drifted a yard under the bar. Geordan Murphy caught it and ran towards the side of the pitch, eating up every last nanosecond of time before hoofing it into an enraptured crowd. Grand Slam!
Pens: S.Jones 4
Drop goal: S.Jones
Tries: O’Driscoll, Bowe
Cons: O’Gara 2
Wales: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Mark Jones, 13 Tom Shanklin, 12 Gavin Henson, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Andy Powell, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Ryan Jones (capt), 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Huw Bennett, 17 John Yapp, 18 Luke Charteris, 19 Dafydd Jones, 20 Warren Fury, 21 James Hook, 22 Jamie Roberts.
Ireland: 15 Robert Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll, 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Tomas O’Leary, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Jerry Flannery, 1 Marcus Horan.
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Tom Court, 18 Mick O’Driscoll, 19 Denis Leamy, 20 Peter Stringer, 21 Paddy Wallace, 22 Geordan Murphy.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Touch judges: David Pearson (England), Stuart Terheege (England)
Television match official: Romain Poite (France)
On Behalf of Eveyone at Lovell Rugby Congratulations to Ireland on their historic win.