On Saturday, Ireland finally answered their critics and put to bed any doubts over their ability to cope under pressure by closing out the Six Nations tournament with a tight title-clinching victory over Wales in Cardiff.
Indeed it came down to the last two minutes, with a Ronan O’Gara drop goal, and ultimately, the last two metres as Steven Jones last gasp penalty failed to reach the posts.
Ireland have endured a turbulent past 18 months. Failing miserably to play anything like their best rugby at the World Cup in 2007, their critics saw them as a team of underachievers and bottlers. In the subsequent Six Nations they came close to glory but ultimately failed to secure the long awaited title. The pressure was on to produce.
Eddie O’Sullivan who laid down much of the groundwork, suffered the axe. Declan Kidney arrived fresh from his successes with Munster. Munster typifying the never say die spirit of the Irish. The question was could Kidney help Ireland to finally cross the line and not fall short. Again.
After a solid Six Nations tournament, Ireland knew victory in Cardiff against the Welsh would secure them a historic title. The motivation was there, ending a 61-year drought at the top of the list of priorities.
Ireland came out of the starting blocks with all guns blazing. Wales were immediately put under immense pressure. The scoreline at the first half didn’t reflect the dominance of the Irish. Two sloppy moments handed the clinical Steven Jones, the Welsh fly half, the opportunity to help his side take an undeserved lead. He duly put the penalties away.
Ronan O’Gara so often key to Ireland’s success with his gifted right boot, appeared to be suffering from nerves in the first half. He failed to convert a relatively straight forward penalty after eight minutes. His kicking was wayward. However come the second half and after a rousing team talk from Kidney, O’Gara and Ireland had composed themselves and took the battle to Wales.
Indeed with less then 10 minutes played in the second half, Ireland found themselves 14-6 ahead. The first try came after Ireland piled the pressure on the Welsh within metres of the try line. Eventually Irish captain, Brian O’Driscoll managed to squeeze the ball on the try line.
The second try was created by a rejuvenated O’Gara, who with delicate chip found space down the Welsh right hand side. Bowe agilely cradled the ball into his arms and with searing pace escaped the chasing Welsh players, scoring under the posts.
However the drama wasn’t over yet. Sloppy play by the Irish allowed Wales right back into the match. Jones converted three penalties to leave the scores at 15-14 with Wales a point behind with ten edgy minutes to play.
In the 74th minute Jones looked to have secured Wales a win with a well taken drop goal. However O’Gara managed to match Jones effort with a dogged effort in the 77th minute which flew straight between the posts. 17-15 to the Irish.
The drama wasn’t over yet. With the clock turning to red, Jones had the final kick of the game. A penalty from the half way line. However it dropped just in front of the posts. Gordon Murphy promptly punted the ball out of play securing a historic win for Ireland.
Victorious captain Brian O’Driscoll after the match hailed Ireland’s famous success:
‘”I’m so proud of the boys. We took a lot of flak over the last 18 months but to be champions – I’m delighted.”
It also highlights a sharp turnaround in fortunes for pre-tournament favorites Wales who were being crowned the best team in the Northern hemisphere after an impressive showing in the autumn internationals. However after the loss to Ireland they finished fourth in the table, leaving coach Warren Gatland to ponder where it all went wrong.
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly