A story of courage and commitment
MANY memorable matches have taken place between old rivals Ireland and Wales, and from them a mutual respect has been born. Last Saturday, at the Arms Park, we were treated to another encounter that will live long in the memory, and for the Irish it was the day that a 12 month, five match losing spell was ended and a marvellous record in the shrine of Welsh rugby maintained.
Yes, the Irish have done it again, beaten Wales in Cardiff before their faithful, carved out yet another victory against the predictions of many and the expectations of more. And as Wales' high hopes of a Triple Crown, perhaps even a Grand Slam, perished on their heartland, there were whispers - maybe barely audible, perhaps conceived in the heady euphoria of a great win, rather than dispassionate objectivity - about Ireland's Triple Crown hopes.
They are still tangible after this victory by the minimum margin, that precious, priceless point. The final pulsating minutes saw Wales score seven points to cut Ireland's eight point advantage to one in the 77th minute. Irish hearts beat to a quick and erratic rhythm, time was willed away and watches checked as Wales came back to the gates.
But the Irish held firm, and when that nail biting exercise was over, the joy was unconfined, a passport to Eden carried on a cloud of emotion.
Perhaps Ireland should not have had to endure those last nervous minutes and put the match out of Welsh reach. But a long spell without victory imposes its own psychological burdens that barrier has now been crashed, and Wales in any case do deserve credit for their fightback.
It was that kind of unforgettable occasion, not admittedly always marked by vintage quality, but a thrilling encounter that produced 51 points - a record total in a match between the countries - six tries, three to each side, and the 26 points Ireland scored equalled the highest total attained in an away international in the championship.
This victory maintained Ireland's unbeaten record in Cardiff that dates back to 1983, six wins and a draw. This was also Ireland's fourth successive win over Wales, a feat not previously achieved.
So much for the statistical elements. Behind them lies a story of immense courage, total commitment to a noble cause and a victory fashioned after the worst possible start, as Wales scored seven points before the match was a minute old.
Thus Ireland's character was under examination from the outset by a team that had beaten Scotland a fortnight earlier and was now on the high road to another triumph. The famous Arms Park victory chant that has sent shivers down the spines of many a visiting team here, Bread of Heaven, was already splitting the sky, Wales in full cry, a nation behind the men in scarlet.
Nothing reflects better on this Ireland team than that they put that nightmare start behind them. Ireland cut the deficit to four points after five minutes, and then by the 12th took the lead, a lead never surrendered. The declaration of intent had been issued.
Without seeking to put the victory into the wrong perspective, bearing in mind the circumstances and the background against which the match was played, it is right that the win be savoured. It is correct, too, to suggest that pride had been restored and that this win be put into the category of one of Irish rugby's very good days, if it is not necessarily restored to the glamour of its best days.
The sequence of events remains vivid, and one is left with a deep inner respect and admiration for what was achieved and the way it was attained. The need of the hour was a win, rather than the manner of its attainment. That need was fulfilled, but it is an source of considerable satisfaction that, in winning, Ireland played in a manner that indicates the nature and variation of this team's play is expanding.
The old warriors, the not so old and the young who made up this Irish side fused into an amalgam that played from the heart and with the head. And while in the end victory could have been stolen from Ireland, it was a win thoroughly deserved.
No praise is too high for Ireland's forwards to a man they contributed handsomely. The scrum was solid, Nick Popplewell was again a vibrant figure in the front row, Paul Wallace underlined his potential and Ross Nesdale had a good debut, with just two wayward throws into the lineout and a delayed throw that incurred a free kick that led to Wales late try.
Once more Jeremy Davidson and Paddy Johns won very good lineout possession. They both played extremely well around the field too, and the back row as a unit was excellent. David Corkery had a superb match, Erie Miller is surely on the foothills of a great career and outplayed the highly rated Scott Quinnell. Yet again Denis McBride made a significant contribution to the cause. The play of the back row had a profound bearing on this win and they outplayed and out thought the Welsh back row trio.
The Irish driving and mauling was very good, the ruck ball was well protected, and it was Wales who surrendered the possession by turning over hard won ball. When Wales used their flankers to try to break over the gain line oft the forward exchanges, they were dumped without ceremony. Their mauling was not anything as effective as Ireland's, and Ireland bit hard and in the tackle often forced Wales to lose the ball.
Niall Hogan, at scrum half, played with infinite common sense and an abundance of courage, and Erie Elwood was a major player in this victory. He varied his game extremely well, and some of his kicking was brilliantly placed, making full back Neil Jenkins chase deep to the corners. Elwood gave Jenkins and left wing Dafydd James an uncomfortable time and forced both to kick short into touch.
The Irish centres Maurice Field and Jonathan Bell can reflect on a job done splendidly. Their tackling was excellent and Field did not give Scott Gibbs an inch. Bell had his best match for Ireland in two years, and his try after 12 minutes gave Ireland the lead.
It was a dream debut for 20 year old Denis Hickie on the right wing. Here surely is another young player with a great future, and he marked the occasion by scoring a try. Dominic Crotty had the unenvitable task of facing Wales' best back, Ieuan Evans, and that was a demanding assignment.
Captain and full back Jim Staples has reason to be satisfied with his general contribution and played a major part in creating the try for Hickie.
The Welsh must surely have felt that they were on the high road to victory when, from the kick off, they attacked down the left. Their pack drove forward and into the Irish "25". The attack was repulsed, but Robert Howley fed Arwel Thomas who spun the ball wide and an attack left to right left Evans in the clear to score a fine try. Jenkins kicked a superb conversion and the ground erupted in acclamation and expectation.
Elwood cut the deficit with a penalty after five minutes, but within two minutes Thomas placed a diagonal kick out to the right for Evans, but the ball went into touch in goal, something of a let off for Ireland.
But Ireland put that indifferent start behind them and took control of the match to the interval. Elwood, caught in two minds, floated a kick up to the Welsh posts; Jenkins went to gather the ball as it hit the protective padding on the posts, and Bell was in like a terrier to grab the ball and score under the posts. Elwood converted, Ireland led 10-7. Twelve minutes gone and 17 points scored.
From this point to the interval, Ireland dominated the match. The forwards played superbly and the Welsh were rocked back on their heels. Elwood varied his game intelligently, and the Irish were not afraid to go at the Welsh ball in hand.
In the 24th minute Ireland scored again. Hogan broke from behind his forwards and Elwood almost got to the Welsh line, his forwards came up in support and Miller crashed over the line. Elwood surprisingly missed the relatively easy conversion, and was wide with a difficult penalty attempt.
But the game continued to flow in Ireland's favour and they struck again with a great try in the 35th minute. Hogan moved the ball to the blind side on half way, and Staples came up at full pace and ran down the right flank. Corkery was in support, took Staples' pass and transferred outside to Hickie who scored in the right corner. It was a great score and Ireland led 20-7 after Elwood was unable to, add the points. Wales's only reply was a penalty from Jenkins just before the break.
It was 10-20 to Ireland at halftime, and Ireland struck again one minute into the second period when Elwood kicked a 30 yard penalty.
Then Wales got a try in controversial circumstances. Referee Wayne Erickson penalised Ireland when it appeared as if the penalty would go the other way. Wales took a quick tap, Thomas sent Evans scampering down the right wing and he swept past Staples to score. Jenkins could not convert.
The Welsh pack had come more into the match but still could not break Ireland down, and when Elwood kicked a penalty in the 59th minute Ireland led 26-15 going into the final quarter.
Jenkins, who had been wide with a 30 yard penalty earlier, kicked a penalty to give Wales renewed hope in the 66th minute. But with three minutes remaining Ireland led 26-18.
Then Nesdale was penalised for delaying the throw in at a lineout. Wales drove on the free kick, Ireland stopped the advance but only temporarily and Scott Quinnell eventually forced his way over the line for a try and Jenkins converted. One point in it, three minutes remaining.
Ireland looked safe when the ball was kicked deep into Welsh territory, but James made a fine run out of defence. Wales attacked on the right, and Crotty made a superb tackle on Thomas. Wales took a quick throw in at a lineout and knocked on.
Ireland took the scrum inside their 25; the scrum was solid, Wales wheeled. Another scrum, Ireland in control of it and then the final whistle. Cardiff belonged to the Irish again on Saturday night.