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Ireland's long, long wait comes to an end - just

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Tom Fordyce | 01:23 UK time, Sunday, 22 March 2009

After 61 years of waiting, it came down to the last two seconds and the last two metres of the final match of the season.

Ireland's Grand Slam triumph in Cardiff was a story that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it, a mesmerising saga with an extraordinary ending destined to be retold time and time and time again.

From the first kick the pace was unrelenting. To the end it was as compelling as anything any author has ever dared dream up.

Tension? At times it felt like you had an elephant sitting on your chest. Nail-biting? Most of us were down to the flesh of the fingers well before the end.

The plot swung this way, that way and then the other. At no stage did anyone watching have the faintest idea where it was going next. And in the final chapter, the final few pages - how many more twists can one tale have?

All great fables need great heroes, and this one was no different.

We might call ours the Three Apostrophes: O'Driscoll, O'Connell, O'Gara, a brave band of brothers each capable of deeds stirring in their own different ways.

Brian O'Driscoll was an inspiration for his side at the Millennium Stadium

O'Driscoll, reborn and revitalised this spring, led from the front, the middle and the back, relentless in defence, tireless in exhortation and unstoppable again from half a yard out.

Will he care that two of his Six Nations tries this year came from a combined distance of one metre? Not a bit of it. "This team's had good times and not so good times," he said afterwards, his faced still smeared with disbelief, "but this is a great time."

Saturday was the happiest evening of BOD's garlanded career. He has of course only ever been a single consonant away from God, but after this Grand Slam, many Irish may consider him to have moved even closer.

As all season, O'Connell was immense, a towering presence at set-piece and in the loose who rampaged through the Welsh line-out like a green-shirted gale.

Stephen Ferris calls him the team's go-to man; others in the side plain Psycho. In South Africa this summer they might well be calling him the Lions captain.

O'Gara - well, he was the hero with feet of clay, almost literally so in a first half when he missed one kickable penalty and hoofed from hand straight into touch with two regulation clearances. Targeted in defence by Wales's big runners, he appeared crushed by pressure as well as players, a once faultless fly-half turned fallible by the weight of occasion and expectation.

Decisively, however, he was a man transformed in the second period. The kicks through found space, the kicks out wide their men.

As his forwards burrowed forward at the death to work field position for what would be the winning drop-goal, he was alone in the pocket, adjusting his feet fractionally with every stunted drive, glancing up at the posts, calibrating and calculating, the loneliest man in the stadium.

When the kick sailed over, he was engulfed - by his team-mates, by the roars of the Irish fans leaping around behind the posts.

It wasn't the first time he'd broken Welsh hearts with that plot-line - back in 2003, another of his last-gasp drop-goals snatched that year's Six Nations match from the home side's grasp, again after Stephen Jones thought he had won it with one of his own - but this moment was of a magnitude all of its own.

Whatever else O'Gara does in his career, he'll be remembered most for that one single swing of the boot. Jonny can tell him all about it.

For Wales, it seems unfair that future readers will recall them mainly for their supporting role in this most engrossing of narratives.

For 80 minutes they matched their opponents run for run, drive for drive, producing over virtually the entire match the sort of dynamic, ferocious rugby they had produced only in patches against Scotland and England and rarely in Paris and Rome.

If the line-out was shaky, the collisions were colossal and the breakdown brutal.

They lost the game by tiny fractions. O'Driscoll was an inch over the try-line when he grounded the ball, Mark Jones an inch over the touch-line when he called the mark that, if given, would have prevented Ireland gaining the territory that led to their captain's key score.

A Gavin Henson kick-through bounced away from Shane Williams with the try-line begging. O'Gara's poke over sat up beautifully for the electric Tommy Bowe to hare away for Ireland's second try in three minutes.

Paul O'Connell was a colossus for Ireland

Stephen Jones kicked out on the full after the ball was passed back inside the 22 to concede the field position that led to O'Gara's match-winning pot. Three minutes later his own match-stealer died in the cold Cardiff air, and the game was gone.

On such miniscule margins does history depend.

Should Henson have been given the chance instead of the no.10? While his long-distance reputation is better than Jones's, he'd already missed one from close to halfway. Jones had landed one from slightly further out.

"Steve wasn't having any problems, was he?" said Ryan Jones brusquely in the aftermath. "He said he fancied it."

Gatland, ironically, was the coach who gave half the Irish team their debuts, blooding everyone from O'Driscoll and O'Gara to John Hayes, Marcus Horan, David Wallace, Peter Stringer and Geordan Murphy in his time in charge of the national side.

Neither that nor Wales' final position in the Six Nations table - a lowly fourth - were giving him any pleasure as his old charges cavorted round the turf with trophies aloft and emerald fireworks exploding behind them.

The championship standings, however, are not an accurate reflection of his side's season. This was not the catastrophic post-championship collapse of 2006. As Ryan Jones said afterwards, with five minutes of the match to go they were second; as his coach added, "You saw the two best teams in the tournament today."

When asked if Ireland deserved their Slam, Gatland was his usual mix of logical and laconic. "They've won all their matches, haven't they?" he said, unblinking.

Whether it was a truly 'grand' slam is another debate, one that almost seemed churlish when the echoes from this epic win were still to fade away.

In the build-up to the final weekend, O'Driscoll described his side's performances as "both good and bad", and in Cardiff there was again evidence of both.

In the first half Ireland were lacking in both patience and phases, and in clocking up 15 penalties to their opponent's five they left themselves open to exploitation. Yet despite all that they still managed to beat the reigning Grand Slam champions on their own patch, against a team that featured 14 of the 15 Welshmen who starred against France in last season's decider.

In the past two months they won three times away from home, and came out on top in arguably the two best matches of the tournament, their first and last of the campaign.

Like all great teams they also found a way to win when winning seemed difficult - against England, when the wheels were in danger of coming off, and in Cardiff when they were staring down the barrel with just four minutes left on the stadium clock.

While their performances might not all have been inspiring, their achievements were. It was classic Declan Kidney - rock-solid in defence, a domination of the set-piece and control achieved via O'Gara's boot.

In any case, an Irish team that wins a Grand Slam is outstanding in the most literal sense of the word. Will anyone be carping back home about a lack of style? They're as likely to as Mary McAleese is to marry Martin Johnson.

Some questions went unanswered. We'll never know how Paddy Wallace would have felt had that eleventh-hour penalty he gave away been landed by Jones, and we'll never know if Henson would have cleared the bar if he'd been given the chance instead.

We do know what O'Driscoll was thinking, though, as the clock ran down and the crowd fell silent, because he let it slip afterwards: "I hope you don't have the distance."

His hopes came true, just as Ireland's Grand Slam dreams finally did. But oh, it was close.

As the old cliché goes, if a scriptwriter had come up with that ending - the last kick of the championship spiralling towards the posts to decide the Grand Slam, hanging for an age, slowing up, dropping short, triggering wild celebrations - no-one would have believed it.

Well, I saw it with my own eyes, and I can still barely believe it.


  • Comment number 1.

    An enthralling match on a great final day of the tournament. The French put on a show in Italy, Scotland do just enough to get Hadden sacked, England just enough to give Johnson hope for next year & as for the final game, it was what championship deciders should be; tense, peppered with brilliance and nerve induced error and it went to the final second.
    I'm sorry, but stuff this Friday night Sunday lunchtime nonsense, international rugby gets played on Saturdays. Next year 5 Saturdays, 3 games back to back over 7 weeks is the way to go.

  • Comment number 2.

    The 3 apostrophes - what can I say? Magnificent. A long overdue and much deserved GS. Well done Ireland, hangover central.

  • Comment number 3.

    Amazing match and great article - you captured how the whole of Ireland felt during the match. We've waited a long time for this. Believed, when the players themselves didn't believe - it was hard to fathom that it wasn't a dream. I couldn't be more proud.

  • Comment number 4.

    Oh this feels so good! Absolutely enthralling game of rugby. Congratulations to Wales who would have handsomely won on most other days if they weren't playing a side who were driving with the type of passion that a once in a lifetime opportunity gives you. I was genuinely moved by how sporting the Welsh fans were afterward. Absolutely class army of fans. We have a lot in common - two small nations with a borderline insane passion for sport! I won't even attempt to try and describe the national hangover today - this weekend is going to be a long one! Employers be nice when those sick calls come in Monday morning!

  • Comment number 5.

    What a day for Ireland and the Irish! I have a splitting hangover and big pocket full of change...I know I celebrated:-)

  • Comment number 6.

    Absolutely. Congratulations Ireland, thoroughly deserved. Although it was painful as a Welshman to see Stephen Jones' last gasp penalty drop short it is nothing compared to the pain of the Irish if it had the legs.
    Gives me all the pleasure in the world to pass on our crown to our Celtic brothers across the sea. Enjoy! I know you will. ;)

  • Comment number 7.

    Well now, I did say Ireland would win the championship on the last kick of the game. It's a great day for Irish Rugby, I am surprised in your report you still couldn't leave the McAlesse/Jonnson alone.
    As for the Irish players, O'Connell gave away too many penalties yesterday and O Gara, despite his drop goal has been short of woeful all championship. This is a team that in the past has played fantastic rugby. Yesterday saw the culmination of sacrificing talent and style for hard results. It wasn't pretty, but then not many Rugby players are.

  • Comment number 8.

    Skipper Jones sets a bad example with a trip"........You get sent off for that if you're English.

  • Comment number 9.

    Congratulations to the Irish , fantastic spirit , never gave up , the same goes to the Welsh-from down Argentina , well done!!

  • Comment number 10.

    8. At 10:39am on 22 Mar 2009, archLionheart wrote:

    Skipper Jones sets a bad example with a trip"........You get sent off for that if you're English.


    Stop being so bitter, you finished above us didn't you? This blog is about an incredibly exciting game and a wonderful Irish victory. Percieved harshness on England by referees does not belong here.

  • Comment number 11.

    I'm so pleased for that Irish team - it would have been a travesty if that generation never won a slam so i'm pleased they got it. Now of course i'll regret saying that if they go on to win 3 more in the next 4 years!

    oh to be in cardiff last night...

  • Comment number 12.

    It was a fitting way to win the Grand Slam...........and I don't care what the table says these were the two best teams in the 6 nations this year.

  • Comment number 13.

    What a game!! It was very fitting that the final match of the championship was played by the two best teams out there (I do support England, but lets be honest....we have been pretty rubbish throughout the championship). I don't think that the post match banter gave enough of a mention to Ronan O'Gara, he was targeted by pretty much every Welsh player on the pitch and kept his head superbly throughout.

    O'Driscoll has to be Lions captain!! He was man of the tournament by a mile.

  • Comment number 14.

    As an Englishman rooting for Ireland yesterday, heartiest congratulations must go to the men from across the Irish Sea. In an age when sport can be so predictable and the usual suspects invariably come out on top, it's nice to see someone else getting their spot in limelight for a change and savouring a deserved victory. I was in Dublin the night Ireland defeated Italy in the 1994 football world cup and still have the hangover to show for it!

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 16.

    Good blog Tom. I felt the match could be summed up by the video replay snapshot of BOD's try - just, just there!

    You have to recognise that for such a fantastic tight game to end in victory, you need just as much input from the opponent, and considering that all Wales were playing for was 2nd place as the clock wound down, you have to admire them for that massive motivation.

    Maybe it was that little bit extra on the line that pushed Ireland over it.


  • Comment number 17.

    As an Irishman, my feeling is not so much one of pride-but of relief. I thought we were much the better team yesterday-even in the first half but you could see the anxiety in our play. Second half I thought we were outstanding. O'Drsicoll is, well, just O'Driscoll-probably the greatest Irish player ever now. But I thought O'Connell was our man of the match simply because his personal performance is always the barometer of how the pack plays. He single handedly wrecked the welsh line out-and was at the heart of everything good that we did. I would not be at all surprised if he is named as Lions captain.

  • Comment number 18.

    A great day for Irish Rugby have to give credit to Wales for playing their part in a magnificent match. Fell great for O'Gara after all the stick he had after the England match

  • Comment number 19.

    What an amazing game of rugby. I almost cried when Jones was lining up the kick, and I certainly did afterwards! 61 years is a LONG time to wait.

  • Comment number 20.

    Congratulations to Ireland absolutely deserved although of course everyone realises that a penalty more for England or one less for Ireland in their match would have meant that the Irish would not have got the grand slam, the triple crown or even the championship.

  • Comment number 21.

    Congratulations to the Irish team on a fantastic achievement. After five weekends of compelling rugby the best team got the spoils. I'm an England supporter, but anyone who says otherwise is just being churlish in my opinion.
    Now lets go and show the Saffers!

  • Comment number 22.

    from an irishman,just looking at the main stories on bbc, i think henson has some nerve to say the rest of his team were below par and lots of his team mates wont make the casual on the ball wont make it himself.maybe he is trying to take others down with him but i can see a decent handful of starters from the welsh team

  • Comment number 23.

    What a great game - and I had to watch a recording knowing the result.
    Its not been a bad 6 nations and nice to see England improving and looking as if they might be enjoying playing again.
    Thanks to hwknowles (#20) for the succinct explanation of how scoring works - though I'm not sure (s)he fully understands the implications: just being the English team isnt enough - we have to score more than them to win and we didnt. I'm looking forward to next time though.

  • Comment number 24.

    I, too, watched on television, enthralled, as Ireland and Wales produced one of the most exciting final games in a 6-Nations tournament. I thought, on the balance of play both on the day and over the whole tournament, that Ireland did deserve their first Grand Slam since 1948, but they left it rather late!
    No one however seems to have considered the role in the match of referee Wayne Barnes - I thought he controlled the game with quiet authority and not a little humour - not easy in a match with so much at stake for both teams.
    All in all a great end to a great 6-Nations

  • Comment number 25.

    lots of talk about "if England had kept 15 men on the park etc. etc" things could have been different. We didn't, and they weren't. At the end of the day, the Championship decider was contested by the two best teams in the 6 nations. Commiserations to Wales, but congratulations to Ireland - maybe next year if we build on the few positives we've seen this time around, ( Armitage, Cueto, and Flutey for example) we might be challenging for the Triple Crown/Grand Slam. In the meantime, let's hope an English Brian O'Driscoll or Shane Williams will appear !!

  • Comment number 26.

    As an Irishman who has lived in Wales for 14 years, it was a fantastic day. Cardiff had delivered success to Munster twice in the last few years and now the guys were able to replicate that success with the national team.

    Well done to both sides for putting on a masterclass in rugby!

    Roll on 2010.......

  • Comment number 27.

    Wow what a game! Good article Tom but there again you could have written anything but as long as the words "Ireland" & "win grand slam" in it then you were on a winner with me.
    We didn't hear much from Declan Kidney during the week but he would never come out with the nonsense that Gatland spoke. Gatland is a Kiwi & he let the Welsh down saying what he did. There were a load of Welsh lads in the pub I watched the game in & they were brilliant as they always are. Even when they loose a game they make sure they win the singing.
    Great day of rugby though. Hopefully the Lions squad can carry this momentum & standard on tour.
    Any chance Mr. Guscott will say something positive about Irish rugby now??

  • Comment number 28.

    The Celtic Nations Stand Together! Wales had it, Ireland have it, Scotland will have it in 2010!?!?!

  • Comment number 29.

    "Celtic nations stand together".....What an absolute load of rot.

    Didn't you hear, the welsh management have said that they dislike the Irish more than anyone?

    Livin' in dreamland.

  • Comment number 30.

    The member of "the Welsh Management" who said that was a Kiwi who I would hope regrets it.

    I understood what he was trying to say (re: Irish success in the Heineken Cup) but he made a dog's breakfast of it and probably ended up sounding bitter to his old employer's and inspiring the Irish that little bit more.

    Fantastic day, fantastic match...all credit to both sides who played with a spirit that is often not seen with so much at stake. Exemplified in the first minute by Ryan Jones and Donnacha o'Callaghan, bit stupid but just showed how "up for it" they both were.

    There are questions that went unanswered for the Lions tour but who cares right now, they can be addressed at a later date - the Irish team to a man can stand tall, and who knows....this team probably has another couple of years before some retirements begin, now the pressure is off (a little) could there be more success?

    Final thought - Henson needs to get his own house in order before coating off his team mates, many of whom showed up far more than he did on Saturday!

  • Comment number 31.

    Congratulations Ireland!!

    An outstanding performance yesterday, although our discipline let us down and almost cost us the game. Our defence was superb again, we only conceded three tries in the whole tournament!

    Fair play to Wales, they matched our ferocity and skill. The tempo of the game was heart wrenching. Bring on the six nations 2010..!!!

    Gatland is eating his words at the moment, next time he will know to keep quiet.

  • Comment number 32.

    Great game. Great article. Great comments. I just think it's a fantastic tournament, one of the closest and most exciting sporting occasions in the world. I genuinely would not want to predict a single result next year. As a Welsh fan I'm worried that England look good again (hoping it's a flash in the pan!) but I'm really pleased for Ireland. One thing that upset me was Gatland's comments before the game and the apparent tactic of the Welsh to try and rile Ireland. That's not what rugby is about. This is not about Rooneys and Fergusons it's about good honest players giving their all and having a pint together in the pub afterwards, as the supporters do. Thankfully R Jones and Gatland seemed to show a little bit of humility afterwards. S Jones and Ronan O'Gara also showed how to conduct themselves after the game too. We must protect what is great about rugby.

  • Comment number 33.

    ok.... finally feel able to write a tiny bit, it was amazing, I did manage to finally get tickets, mainly because a Welsh man who had been watching me trying (by talking to everyone in the Hilton) to find one for 5 hours, so he just gave me his. I was hugely impressed by the Welsh support afterwards, ok I can't make sense yet.... but thank you for providing a sporting day to match anything possible in life... see i still can't make any sense!

    Erin go Bragh

  • Comment number 34.

    Wales showed the lack mid-field cutting edge that has been there all season. Once Henson moved to full back their chances of scoring a try diminished. Would have been better to have moved Roberts to 15 and left the mid-field untouched.
    But 2 errors of judgement in the last 5mins also shows alack of composure, i.e. the kick direct into touch and then not telling Henson to take the penalty.
    It is no good having the best back line in Europe if the forwards cannot give them enough ball. 6 lineouts lost on their own throw.
    So all in all, second best on the day and they all need a long hard look in the mirror, including Gatland.
    Well done Ireleand.

  • Comment number 35.

    it was truly a great achievement,having lived through various tribulations over 45 years it was almost, but not quite, too difficult to watch. I was drawn to the memories of greats such as Mike Gibson ( i can remember the varsity game he played for Cambridge), Tom Kiernan (never a fan I have to say), Barry McGann (who ate all the pies), Mike Galway, Willie John, Tony, Ollie, Fergus and many many more. I believe in one way or another they were all there, on Saturday night, willing that last kick to just die in the air, and so it did. 'Mon Ireland, c'mon Ravenhill, Thomond,RBS Showgrounds, cROKER AND ABOVE ALL ELSE THE OLD LADY HERSELF....Lansdown Road, sonn to be once again in full view and now in all her newly decked finery

  • Comment number 36.

    rochdalepaddy, in the team of the tournament article you complained that Lee Mears couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat, let along his lineout jumpers. You realise that he lost ONE throw all competition right, and therefore had a 98% accuracy? Far better stats than Flannery or Best. And he's better in the loose than both as well.


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