By Tadhg Peavoy
The Millennium Stadium is one of the most hallowed venues in Irish rugby history; it was in 2009 at that cathedral of rugby that the Ireland team secured only their second Six Nations Grand Slam in 118 attempts.
VIDEO: Wales v Ireland 2009 in full
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Ireland came into the final day of the championship with narrow wins against France (30-21), England (14-13) and Scotland (22-15) under their belts, as well as a handsome victory against Italy (38-9).
Wales came into the clash with wins over Scotland, England and Italy, but defeat to France, meant the defence of their 2008 Grand Slam was over.
However, victory at home against Ireland would have meant denying Ireland that same honour, as well as potentially winning the tournament outright. That said, Warren Gatland’s team needed to win by an unlikely 26 points to overturn Ireland’s lead on points difference.
Ireland had been in a similar situation previously when England came calling to Lansdowne Road in 2003. That day Eddie O’Sullivan’s Ireland met one of the greatest teams in the history of rugby union and were decimated 42-6, and by five tries to none, securing the Grand Slam for the Clive Woodward-coached side. Two solitary David Humphreys penalties against the Red Rose were scant reward for their season’s efforts.
There was a different feeling coming into the Welsh match. While Wales were a fine side, they were not of the exceptional vintage of the 2003 England team and this was as good a chance as this Ireland team was going to get.
The Ireland personnel in Cardiff in 2009 bears more than a striking resemblance to the 2013 squad, with Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald, Ronan O’Gara, Donncha O’Callaghan, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip, Rory Best and Tom Court all in Declan Kidney’s match day 22 on 21 March.The Wales groups of 2009 and 2013 also have familiar looks: Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Adam Jones and Jamie Roberts all feature in both.
The opening 32 minutes were tight and nervous, with neither side able to exert control and the defences smothering any openings with big hits and tight-knit structures.
Turnovers at the breakdown were the order of the day.
Eventually Wales broke the deadlock with a Stephen Jones penalty after Ireland had infringed at the breakdown.
Wales doubled that lead when Fitzgerald and O’Gara were done for crossing on halfway. Stephen Jones again stepped up and smashed the ball between the uprights.
It remained 6-0 until half-time, if it were a 40-minute encounter, Wales would have arm-wrestled Ireland into submission.
But a different Ireland came out after the break, with a superb line-break from Tommy Bowe and driving run from Paul O’Connell setting the tempo early in the second period.
From that initial flurry Ireland won a lineout deep in the Welsh 22, which they used as a platform for excellent forward multiple-phase play, which led to their opening score; captain O’Driscoll burrowing over and grazing the whitewash with the egg.
The TMO, Roman Poite, correctly judged that he had touched down. O’Gara slotted the conversion with ease to give Ireland the lead on 44 minutes.
With fire in their bellies from that opening salvo, Ireland surged further ahead. They won a scrum inside their own half, with Tomás O’Leary spinning wide right to O’Gara.
The Munster out-half chipped ahead into the Wales half, with the ball bouncing between red jerseys, allowing Bowe to race in off his right wing, claim the ball and steam towards the line.Not even the lightning quick Shane Williams could catch him.
O’Gara added the extras and all of a sudden, 46 minutes in, Kidney’s Ireland were in the box seat at 14-6.
But Wales were not about to let Ireland gallop off in celebration into the public houses and kebab shops of Cardiff with a Grand Slam without a fight - and back they came.
O’Callaghan was penalised for an off-the-ball incident with Phillips inside the Ireland half and Stephen Jones capitalised by striking the penalty kick between the posts, rebounding the ball in off the far-left upright: Wales 9-14 Ireland.
With five points between the sides and just 30 minutes remaining the best of the drama was saved for the closing embers of the tie.
The game was ebbing and flowing with both Celtic armies seizing control of the game, before succumbing to their opponents.
But it was Irish indiscipline again that allowed Wales to claw back a further three points, with No 8 Heaslip penalised for obstruction in the air at a lineout just inside the Ireland half.
Stephen Jones, who thus far had been metronomic with the boot, licked his chops and smashed another penalty kick over the bar to make it a two-point game at 14-12 coming into the final quarter.
It was more Irish indiscipline that gave Wales a chance to regain the lead they had lost just after half-time, when John Hayes got his hand caught in the cookie jar as he stole the ball from the side of a ruck.
However, Gavin Henson – sporting a quiff the size of the Cliffs of Moher – could not bisect the posts from halfway; a let-off for Ireland.
But with that Wales grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and attacked Ireland with ferocious intent, Shane Williams, Mark Jones and Phillips all edging Wales into a drop-goal position, which Stephen Jones took with aplomb from inside the 22.
With five minutes to go Wales led by a point.
The initiative dramatically swung the other way moments later as Stephen Jones put the ball out on the full from his own 22, giving Ireland a lineout exactly where they wanted to be.
O’Connell caught Best’s throw at four; Ireland mauled; Ireland picked and went; Peter Stringer picked out Ronan O’Gara on the 22; and the Munster man split the posts with a drop.Ireland were two minutes from a first Grand Slam since 1948.
However, there was to be one last moment of drama, which left Ireland’s players, management and fans with their hearts in their mouths.
From a Wales ruck just inside the Ireland half, Paddy Wallace inexplicably came in the side to contest the ball, and referee Wayne Barnes threw his hand up in the mild Cardiff air to award a penalty to the Principality.
From 48m from goal, with 80:07 on the clock, Stephen Jones lashed the egg at the Ireland posts looking for his 16th, 17th and 18th points of the night.
The ball flew through the air and dropped just below the crossbar into the grateful arms of Bowe, before Geordan Murphy dotted the ball down on the turf in the in-goal area and booted it into the crowd.
Ireland had ended a 61-year Grand Slam drought.
There will be full live coverage of Wales v Ireland and England v Scotland on Saturday 2 February from 12.30pm and Italy v France on Sunday 3 February on RTÉ Two. (Live streaming Ireland only). Ireland v Wales is also live from 1.00pm on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1. (Live streaming Worldwide)