Grand Slam winners return to heroes' welcome


Ireland's historic Grand Slam winning team arrived back in Dublin airport in the last few hours to an ecstatic - and at times emotional - welcome from a crowd of about 3,000 fans and well-wishers.

News the team's Aer Arann flight from Cardiff had landed shortly after 2pm was followed by a cheer that started somewhere in the baggage hall and echoed down the corridors to the arrivals area, rising to screaming pitch as Brian O'Driscoll was first to march smartly through the arrivals doors.

Waiting media and a large contingent of Gardai were nearly overcome when fellow players Ronan O'Gara and Gordon D'Arcy arrived followed by the other team members and crew.

The airport arrivals area, bedecked in celebratory balloons, huge wallpaper-style pictures of the team, resembled St Patrick's Day as the team posed for brief photographs.

"Thirty seconds only," said Brian O'Driscoll as he paused for pictures holding the trophy with a small boy. Gardai held back hundreds of supporters shouting - mainly it seemed - "Ronan! Ronan!"

The team passed through the arrivals area, past outstretched arms and young women pleading for autographs.

Adults and children many wearing Ireland rugby jerseys and waving banners lined the route out the arrivals hall doors, left past the Dublin Airport Bar and over to the bus park, where they surrounded the team bus, holding up camera phones and trying to attract the players' attention.

By 3pm the bus had moved off on its way to the city centre where a stage has been erected at the Mansion House, where the team was greeted by supporters at 4.30pm.

Entry to the area has been restricted, Last night's win brought rugby fans, and even non-rugby fans, to the edge of their seats right up to the closing seconds of the game.

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, giving Ireland its first Grand Slam since 1948.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen congratulated the Irish team on behalf of the Government on an "immense achievement".

"It was a privilege to be in Cardiff today and to witness the team's courage, remarkable determination and will to win for Ireland," Mr Cowen said.

"The Irish team's performance in today's game and throughout the whole campaign has been nothing short of superb. The players have brought great distinction to themselves and to our country.

The scale of the team's achievement is evident from the fact that the last time Ireland won a Grand Slam was 61 years ago. Today's triumph will go down in the annals as one of Ireland's greatest ever sporting victories."

Mr Cowen added: "It has truly been a most memorable season in Irish rugby history and great credit is due to the coach Declan Kidney, team captain Brian O'Driscoll and the entire playing squad.

"Each of the players have displayed great passion, skill and commitment in every game this season. They have led by their example and have made Irish people across the globe proud.

"And what a way to clinch the championship - a drop goal right at the death! It certainly was an edge of seat experience but that made it all the more worthwhile. Truly worthy champions and a rightful place in Ireland's long and proud sporting history."

The team were also congratulated following their win by President Mary McAleese, who also attended the match.

Minister for Sport Martin Cullen said the night in Cardiff was "a magnificent occasion for Irish rugby" and that the team had performed against "extraordinary pressure".

"They are deserving winners of the highest accolade in northern hemisphere rugby and have secured for themselves a permanent place in Irish sporting history."

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said the team were "heroes" and that they had made history and made the whole country proud with their "incredible" win.

* The Irish Times will carry a commemorative poster to mark the historic Grand Slam win tomorrow, Monday March 23rd.