It was hardly the classic encounter the Six Nations had been anticipating; in fact to the neutral it was downright ugly. But to anyone with the Three Feathers anywhere near their heart it was a thing of absolute beauty as Wales won their second Triple Crown in four years and so set up their Grand Slam shot in Cardiff next Saturday. So much for the much-vaunted "four-horse" race for the Championship. If France lose today it is over a whole lap early.
Wales will be deserved champions, too. They proved here yesterday that they can do the ugly stuff as well as all that is pretty. In four victories Warren Gatland has transformed the rabble that was once the Dragonhood into a unit who have competitive steel to match the talent that has lain untapped for far too long.
Of course, there was some personal revenge being wreaked on the nation that dispensed of Gatland's services so abruptly six years ago, not to mention on the ambitious assistant who took his job. But when he claimed that "this was not about me and Eddie [O'Sullivan]" it was difficult not to see his point. Wales have found Warren, Warren has found Wales and this love affair will run and run. And so too for that matter will little Shane Williams.
As ever, the magician with the dancing boots lit up the proceedings with one instance of brilliance. His try in the 52nd minute was sheer Shane, as he squirmed through a gap that just wasn't there. It was such an apt way for the wing to draw level with Gareth Thomas at the top of the Wales scoring charts. Williams is in the form of his career: 40 tries from 55 caps is one heck of a ratio.
Ireland will testify to his finishing ability, or will do when they stop reflecting on theirown shortcomings. They startedoff brightly enough but then disappeared into a fog of mediocrity. Wales were a little way off their best and on an anotherafternoon, against a more adven-turous outfit, they could have been punished hard for the yellow cards shown to Mike Phillips and Martyn Williams. But Ireland let them off with alarming generosity. Defeat at Twickenham next weekend would put O'Sullivan's position in jeopardy. They do appear in desperate need of some new direction.
Their mood contrasts to that of Wales, although it might all have been so different if Shane Horgan's right arm was one inch longer. When the rampaging wing burst towards the line in the 22nd minute, the home side were 6-0 to the good, courtesy of two early Ronan O'Gara penalties, and appeared certain to take a 13-point advantage. But Phillips hauled him down and Horgan's lunge at the try-line came up short. It was as near as they were to come all afternoon.
In fact, they retreated into their shell straight after, and Wales should have gone in at the very least on level terms. That they did not was down to an act of petulance that is sure to bring Phillips a Gatland rollocking.
Wales had pegged the deficit back to 6-3 with a Stephen Jones penalty, and the outside-half was about to take aim at anotherin the 38th minute when thereferee, Wayne Barnes, penalised Ireland in front of the posts. But then Phillips decided to knee Marcus Horan in the ribs as the prop took his time releasing the ball, and Barnes reached forhis yellow. Would Wales pay for the scrum-half's stupidity? The answer was a resounding no, as the visitors actually came out and "won" the next 10 minutes with another Jones goal.
There was no intensity in the Irish play and even less creativity, and when Shane Williams completed a move by stepping inside Tommy Bowe and handing off Andrew Trimble the portents were ominous. But one more piece of Welsh numbskullery gave Ireland fresh hope.
Martyn Williams cynically tripped up Eoin Reddan just as the No 9 was getting up to support Jamie Heaslip's line-break. The flanker was fortunate the colour was not red, while Wales were grateful that all Ireland could gather from their numerical advantage were two more O'Gara penalties. That made it 13-12, but though there was only a whisker in it, it still seemed a long whisker. And when Bernard Jackman piled into Ryan Jones on the floor, Wales pulled away again via James Hook's boot.
In the last five minutes, Wales's forwards kept possession until Phillips could joyously hoof it into the stands. By then, Brian O'Driscoll had limped off with a hamstring tear that will keep him out of the England game and perhaps longer. His agony summed up Ireland's day. Wales's day, meanwhile, was one of ecstasy. "This is not the end," said the assistant coach, Shaun Edwards. "There is still a Championship and Grand Slam to win."
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