Category: Archive

Irish edge Wales in pulsating thriller to take Grand Slam

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

If the previous solitary Grand Slam of 1948 remains etched in monochrome, this time the Irish tasted glory in the brightest possible technicolour. Ronan O’Gara’s magnificent drop goal to make it 17-15 seemed to have settled everything that was on the line in the Welsh capital, but a pulsating game of such high stakes simply had to have a final twist.
An errant hand at the bottom of a ruck was spotted by referee Wayne Barnes, and suddenly Wales and Jones had an opportunity to spoil the party with the very last play. No one bar the kicker himself will know why the ball ran out of steam when it had initially looked so good.
After all they had given in what was a truly riveting contest, Brian O’Driscoll and his team could have done without those seconds of agony, but they and many of their predecessors know that Slams don’t come easy. As Jones looked away in despair, all the blood, sweat and tears of the golden generation were finally worth it. Underachievers no more.
Where Ireland had lost their nerve in the past, this was a victory for persistence and heart. A grinding, territorially-dominant performance had exploded like a nova in the early stages of the second half when tries in rapid succession from O’Driscoll, who was inspirational yet again, and Tommy Bowe appeared to have killed the Welsh effort stone dead.
At 14-6 in front with the magnificent Paul O’Connell terrorizing the Wales line-out and with O’Gara continuing to expose the makeshift defensive combination of Shane Williams and Gavin Henson, suddenly it looked as if Ireland would win pulling up.
If Wales never quite hit their stride, they did enough to force the winners into giving away a few soft penalties, which Jones picked off. A rare darting run by Shane Williams had the Irish defense at full stretch and then after Mike Phillips had blasted his way into the 22, Jones coolly dropped a goal to make it 15-14.
There were five minutes left and with a packed arena ringing to the sound of joyous Welsh voices, you wondered if Ireland had the bottle to save their season and their reputations. But as the stadium clocked moved inexorably towards full time, how could we have doubted a team largely constructed in the image of Munster?
While its architect, coach Declan Kidney, couldn’t have predicted the outcome, he would have known if his forwards were able to create the right sort of field position, then he had someone on the pitch who would shoulder the burden of winning the game.
From a line out on the Welsh 22, Ireland picked and drove with the sort of patience and organization we’ve been accustomed to in this championship, and appropriately, it was Peter Stringer – on in place of Tomas O’Leary – who delivered the pass to O’Gara.
If the drop goal wasn’t the most sweetly struck of his career, it was by far the most important. O’Gara hasn’t had his best championship, yet this was unwavering self-belief before our very eyes.
“I’d an awful lot of time to think about it. I was roaring for the ball for 30, 40, 50 seconds,” he recalled. “But then Strings showed great composure, and Wales obviously got a running start, so I had to concentrate on getting the ball up rather than driving through like a normal drop kick.”
Some of the collisions in what was an incredibly physical contest could be heard above the constant din, and Stephen Ferris, who would surely have reveled in the physical exchanges, was an early casualty with a damaged finger. In Denis Leamy, Ireland had replacement ready-made for the fray, but their dominance in the first half worryingly yielded nothing on the scoreboard and Wales went in 6-0 ahead through a couple of Jones penalties.
But frustration suddenly turned to ecstasy after the interval when O’Driscoll muscled his way over from close range, and then Bowe connected with a perfect O’Gara chip that bounced wickedly between Henson and Shane Williams to storm away for a second try. O’Gara converted both and suddenly Ireland had history in their crosshairs.
While it all came down to O’Gara’s glory shot, the championship season has been one fuelled by confidence, experience and some intelligent coaching by Kidney. If the modus operandi haven’t been the most spectacular, it was still the sweetest of successes.
Several of Irish rugby’s golden generation had been pilloried following the disastrous World Cup performance of 2007. Last Saturday, they had their redemption. Let’s just hope it won’t be another 61 years before the next Grand Slam.

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