Drop of genius from O'Gara as Ireland end waiting game
Wales 15 Ireland 17: Munster man's late kick breaks Grand Slam drought and releases Blarney Army to turn Welsh capital green
Sunday 22 March 2009
Sixty one years they had waited for the second Grand Slam and when it arrived, in the most dramatic fashion, their reaction was never going to disappoint. Very few countries know how to celebrate quite like the Irish and this morning the streets of the Welsh capital will still echo to the sound of the Blarney Army's jubilation. Put simply, and without a trace of hyperbole, this was one of the island's proudest sporting occasions. If not its very proudest.
But oh, it could so easily have been the cruellest. With the final kick of a gripping game that did things to the emotions that should really be illegal, Stephen Jones had a penalty to break Ireland's hearts once more. His effort from near the halfway line hung in the air for what seemed an age, before falling under the posts. "From the moment Stephen struck it I thought it was over," said Ryan Jones. The Wales captain looked crestfallen and he had every right to. There the Jones boys had stood, thinking they had just won it, but instead they had ended up fourth in the table. What an incredible finale to an incredible Championship decider.
Even that most pragmatic of Celts, Declan Kidney, was caught up in the overwhelming sentiment of it all, being barely unable to speak after the match. "Unbelievable," was about the best the coach could manage after breaking the curse in his first season in charge. Kidney's adjective summed it up perfectly. In the stands the great Jack Kyle hugged those all around him as the realisation hit home that his team's glory in 1948 now had a partner in the annals. And in O'Driscoll, Dr Jack has a national hero who can be considered his equal. If only because of this man-of-the-match display.
"This feel like just deserts for all those years," said O'Driscoll, who has hurt so badly on so many anti- climactic occasions. "We've won Triple Crowns before, but we wanted the big one, we wanted the Slam."
It had been anything but straightforward, however. The nerves jangled all game in an electric atmosphere and no one felt them more blatantly than Ronan O'Gara in those early stages. But, as it was to prove, no one was to stand up and be counted so admirably in a quite torrid climax. "I can't speak highly of Ronan," said O'Driscoll, referring to his team-mate's drop goal with two minutes remaining. "He's had some great highs, but some lows as well and been criticised. The strength of character he showed today was incredible. You wouldn't have thought he had a nerve in his body."
It had, indeed, been a staggering turnaround. The Irish No 10 was targeted from the off and after miscuing a penalty he had earned in the first minute, following a trip by Ryan Jones, O'Gara's composure went AWOL. A few kicks from hand came off the side of his boot and the rest of his game was similarly wayward. Saying that, if O'Driscoll's pass to Luke Fitzgerald had not been deemed forward in the 10th minute then Ireland would still have enjoyed a stirring try-scoring start. But they didn't and the home side inched clear.
But they had lost their all-important full-back, Lee Byrne, to a foot injury in the 30th minute and within six minutes Ireland had wrested the momentum. Unsurprisingly it was O'Driscoll who was the catalyst. It was his break that had the Irish bums off seats and it was his tap down 30 seconds later that had Irish fists punching the air. The dream began to appear in tantalising focus and two minutes later it was written large on the scoreboard.
O'Gara nailed the difficult conversion and then put the chip through that allowed Tommy Bowe to steal in for the second try. Bowe beat his two Osprey team-mates, Henson and Shane Williams, to the bounce and sprinted between the posts. At 14-6 the game had been turned on its head.
But just as it looked as if Wales would buckle under this ferocious assault, so the Irish excitement bubbled over into indiscipline. Donncha O'Callaghan's transgression in the 54th minute was especially stupid as he pushed over Mike Phillips when Wales had already knocked on from yet another woeful line-out. Stephen Jones provided the punishment, just as he had in two other cases, and when the game entered the last 10 minutes there was just two points in it. Wales could clearly sense their opponents' anxiety and pressed forward. Phase after phase followed in the Irish 22, until Phillips chucked the ball back for his fly-half. Jones's drop goal was high and deadly. Wales were ahead; Ireland were stunned; here they go again.
But then, amazingly, the Welsh psyche snapped when they made a dreadful hash of the restart, passing back into the 22 and from there kicking it out on the full. That handed Ireland their lifeline. They worked the ball to the middle of the park where O'Gara seized the day. It was surely destined to be the most famous drop-goal since a certain J Wilkinson Esq did the deed in Sydney. Wouldn't it? As the seconds ran down, Wales were awarded that penalty, 48 metres out, and despite Henson having the longer range, Ryan Jones had no hesitation in handing it to his namesake.
"What was I thinking when Stephen stood over the ball?" said O'Driscoll. "I was just thinking 'don't have the length'. I thought we deserved to win. But that's not always enough and sometimes you need Lady Luck to help as well. Perhaps we got 10 years of luck today." They also had 61 years of frustration to get out of their system.
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