Ireland finally reach the promised land
Wales 15 Ireland 17:The Grand Slam famine is over 61 years after Ireland’s only triumph as Ireland produced a remarkable performance underpinned by high tensile mental steel to win a truly heart-stopping encounter that wasn’t decided until the final kick of the game.
Stephen Jones failed with a long range penalty from the halfway line but it would have been a travesty if he had managed to land the kick. Ireland scored two tries to nil and but for the intervention of referee Wayne Barnes, whose wrath they incurred religiously, might have won the match a great deal more comfortably.
They won’t care one whit now because in the end Ronan O’Gara’s 77th minute drop goal, coming less than 90 seconds after Jones had given the home side what looked like victory with a similar strike, sealed the win.
There were many outstanding performances on the day but none eclipsed the contribution of Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and first half replacement Denis Leamy, who had a truly stupendous match. In the context though every single player contributed something to the win with Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and Gordon D’Arcy coming up with some fine individual plays. The pack were simply outstanding to a man.
Ryan Jones sly trip on Ronan O’Gara on 41 seconds after the Irish outhalf hoisted an up and under drew an irate response from Donncha O’Callaghan whose one-on-one grappling with the Welsh captain was soon joined by most players from both teams.
Referee Wayne Barnes awarded Ireland a penalty but O’Gara pulled his attempt from the Welsh 10 metre line narrowly left and wide.
The visiting side were quickly into their stride and a brilliant Gordon D’Arcy break gained 30 metres but after a couple of rucks, Tommy Bowe could not quite gather O’Gara’s cross kick. Ireland, though, had started impressively, mixing the game nicely
between playing for territory and keeping the ball in hand.
Tomas O’Leary’s clever kick to the corner proved even more precipitous when Ireland spoiled the Welsh lineout and Shane Williams was collared over his own line. From the scrum five, the Irish surged three times through the pack before O’Leary linked with O’Driscoll but the Irish captain’s overhead pass to Luke Fitzgerald was adjudged forward and the chance was lost.
The tension of the occasion was manifest in prolonged bouts of aerial ping-pong with the Irish halfbacks guilty of a couple of errors in putting the ball out on the full. The departure of Stephen Ferris after just eight minutes with a hand injury brought Denis Leamy into the fray and he immediately made his presence felt.
The portents for Ireland based on those opening 20 minutes appeared promising as O’Connell nicked a couple of Welsh lineouts, Ireland were forcing the home side backwards and defensively the visitors were forcing turnovers. The only cavils were that Wales looked slightly more dangerous because of the willingness to try and offload in the tackle and that Ireland’s kicking game was periodically lax.
O’Gara was being constantly targeted by the Welsh as they ran down his channel and the consistent punishment was having an impact on his general play. As the game reached the half hour mark without a score, two pieces of Irish indiscipline – they conceded a brace of penalties within a minute – gave Wales first field position and then the opportunity for three points. Jones posted the penalty from 20 metres.
A spiralling error rate was beginning to seriously undermine Ireland’s good start. Runners were getting isolated and Wales aggressive defence started to force mistakes. On 38 minutes Barnes decision to penalise Heaslip for obstruction appeared ludicrously harsh: accidental obstruction appeared a more correct call.
Jones landed the resultant penalty, a beautiful strike from 45 metres to nudge the home side 6-0 in front. Ireland were handed a valuable lesson concerning the importance of scoring when in opposition territory. The visitors had enjoyed the better of the first half in
terms of field position and possession but ominously the trailed 6-0 at the interval.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney needed to recalibrate the game-plan at half-time, his priority to improve the team’s kick-chase game and try and get them to offload or at least be more dynamic at ruck time. The Irish scrum was also under pressure and on a couple of occasions in the Welsh 22, a steadier platform might have proved a decisive launching pad.
Whatever was said had the desired effect based on the opening throes of the second half. Bowe raced onto D’Arcy’s long pass sprinted 40 metres from inside his own half and although tackled by Jamie Roberts, Ireland got the field position they craved. Wales right wing defended O’Gara’s cross kick but conceded the lineout and from that platform, Ireland would not leave the home 22 without points.
O’Connell won the lineout, the Irish pack edged closer and closer and just as he did against England, O’Driscoll demonstrated his poacher’s instincts.
From a ruck virtually on the Welsh line, the Irish captain forced his way under Welsh hooker Matthew Rees for a try which O’Gara converted, as he would do again 90 seconds later as Ireland grabbed a second try.
The Irish outhalf dinked a little kick over the Welsh defence and Bowe arrived at full tilt between two Welsh defenders to take the kind bounce with one hand and race 40 metres under the posts.
Ireland were suddenly 14-6 ahead but indiscipline – O’Callaghan turned an Irish scrum into a Welsh penalty for verbals – cost Ireland another three points as Jones kicked his third penalty.
The outcome of this game was going to be decided by fine margins; mental strength and composure almost as prized as physical attributes.
Another Irish transgression, this time Heaslip at a lineout, allowed Jones to kick a fourth penalty and at 12-14, any Irish momentum from their brilliant start to the second half had petered out.
The visiting team desperately needed their talisman to step forward.
Leamy did on the very next play, so too O’Connell but the key in the final quarter was going to be discipline. O’Leary’s clever cross-kick was picked up by Bowe but he chipped Gavin Henson a little early allowing the latter to turn and get back and then the Irish wing compounded his error by pushing Henson and conceding a penalty.
Fitzgerald then tidied up brilliantly and beat several defenders on a slaloming run but as Ireland surged into the 22 with two brilliant offloading cameos from John Hayes, they conceded their sixth penalty of the half: Wales were getting every marginal decision and a 6-0 penalty count reinforced this. It didn’t matter whether Barnes was right or not. He wasn’t, but as the only arbiter that mattered it was a moot point.
Henson attempted a long range penalty from the halfway line but it fell short and the Welsh star, who had been operating at fullback for most of the game following Lee Byrne’s injury, was brilliantly stripped in the tackle by O’Driscoll.
But mistakes would continue to cost Ireland dearly.
Geordan Murphy was adjudged to have knocked on from a superb Henson clearance and once again the visitors were on the back foot.
Wales were being kept in the match and a side of that quality was unlikely to spurn every single turnover. On 74 minutes, Mike Phillips surged clear beating and bullocking through defenders from sloppy lineout ball and although grounded five metres short of the Irish line, Jones dropped back into the pocket, two rucks later to drop a fine goal.
The home side had clawed their way back to lead 15-14.
It’s a measure of the character of this Ireland team that they refused to buckle, getting first the field position and then following half a dozen rucks, O’Gara dropped back into the pocket to drop a goal with two minutes and 15 seconds left.
Still Barnes was to give the home side one final opportunity with 16 seconds left on the clock. Stephen Jones stepped up but from almost the halfway line his effort fell short.
Geordan Murphy ran the ball along the in goal area, touched down and history beckoned. The better team on the day won but it is the sheer character and indomitable will that they displayed that will be as long remembered as anything from Cardiff, March 21st, 2009.
32: S Jones penalty, 3-0; 38: S Jones penalty, 6-0. Half-time: 6-0. 43: O’Driscoll try, O’Gara conversion, 6-7; 45: Bowe try, O’Gara conversion, 6-14; 50: S Jones penalty, 9-14; 55: S Jones penalty, 12-14; 74: S Jones drop goal, 15-14; 77: O’Gara drop goal, 15-17.
Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); M Jones (Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff), G Henson (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Cardiff), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys); I Gough (Ospreys), A-Wyn Jones (Ospreys); D Jones (Scarlets), M Williams (Cardiff), R Jones (Ospreys, capt). Replacements: J Roberts (Cardiff) for Byrne 30 mins. H Bennett (Ospreys) for Rees 56 mins; L Charteris (Dragons) for Gough 56 mins;
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O’Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D’Arcy (Leinster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O’Gara (Munster), T O’Leary (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster); D O’Callaghan (Munster), P O’Connell (Munster); S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: D Leamy (Munster) for Ferris 8 mins; T Court (Ulster) for Hayes 23-27 mins; G Murphy (Leicester) for Kearney 66 mins; P Stringer (Munster) for O’Leary 69 mins; R Best (Ulster) for Flannery 66 mins; P Wallace (Ulster) for Fitzgerald 76 mins.
Referee: W Barnes (England).
** For your free commemorative poster see Monday's Irish Times