Grand Slam Ireland: The Best Six Nations Ever?
A sensational RBS Six Nations tournament came to a thrilling climax today as Ireland and Wales battled for Northern Hemisphere supremacy.
When all was said and done, it was Ireland who walked away with the Triple Crown, the Six Nations trophy and the Grand Slam.
From Mauro Bergamasco's first misplaced pass for Italy against England on the opening weekend to Stephen Jones' final penalty kick in the last second of the last match, this year's Six Nations tournament has kept rugby fans from all over the world captivated.
And we couldn't have asked for a better final day.
It was delicately poised in all three matches before the first ball was even kicked today. France travelled to Rome to take on an Italy side trying desperately to avoid the wooden spoon.
The Italians would have fancied their chances however, having seen France put in a woeful performance against England last week. Unfortunately for them, the mercurial French side decided to have one of their good days, as they swept Italy aside.
Great tries from Sebastian Chabal and Francois Trinh-Duc gave the French a platform which they built on to great effect. Maxime Meydard (2), Cedric Heymans, Thomas Domingo, and Julien Malzieu all ran in tries as well, while three conversions and three penalties from Morgan Parra helped France hit the 50 point mark.
Italy could only manage eight points in reply, with Andrea Marcato kicking a penalty and Sergio Parisse scoring a thoroughly deserved try, Italy's first in over five hours of competition.
The next match of the day saw England take on Scotland in the Calcutta Cup. Both teams had been relatively poor throughout the tournament, but things looked promising for England at least, after their magnificent performance against France last week.
Scotland were the holders of the Calcutta Cup after defeating England last year, and Chris Patterson looked to repeat that feat, giving Scotland the lead with an early penalty.
It wasn't long before England started banging on Scotland's door, however, and tries from Riki Flutey and Ugo Monye gave Martin Johnson's men a comfortable lead. Matthew Tait added another late on which, coupled with the efforts of the kickers, gave England a 26-12 win.
Despite their poor start to the tournament, the results of the final day saw England finish as runners-up for a second consecutive year.
While these two matches were entertaining in their own right, there was an air of understanding that they were merely a warm-up for the final fixture of the 2009 RBS Six Nations.
Wales met Ireland with both sides still capable of winning the tournament. Wales needed to win by 13 points, while Ireland were chasing the Grand Slam, awarded for winning every game in the tournament. Attacking rugby was guaranteed.
Ireland hadn't won that illusive honour since 1948, and the likes of Ronan O'Gara and Brian O'Driscoll were looking to put their names alongside the great Jackie Kyle and his team-mates of '48.
The atmosphere before the game was palpable as these two rugby-mad nations went head to head in perhaps the greatest rugby stadium of them all—The Millenium Stadium.
The match itself swung from side to side as both teams took it in turns to take the initiative. Wales went into half-time 6-0 up, but just a few minutes into the second half they found themselves 14-6 down after two quick-fire Irish tries.
Kicks from Stephen Jones kept Wales in touch before he dropped a goal with just minutes remaining. It would have meant the Triple Crown for Wales and heart-break for Ireland.
Then, with just two minutes left, Ronan O'Gara returned the favour with an almost identical drop-goal, giving Ireland the 17-15 lead.
The championship was out of Wales' reach, but the match wasn't as they were awarded a penalty on the half-way line. If they successfully kicked it, Wales had won the Triple Crown, if they missed, Ireland had won the Championship.
For reasons unbeknownst to me, Gavin Henson didn't take the kick, despite him easily having the distance. Instead, it was Stephen Jones who stepped up and struck it.
For one fleeting moment the Millenium Stadium fell silent as everyone watched the ball gliding towards the posts. Then, as the clock turned red, the Irish contingent in attendance rose to their feet as the kick fell agonisingly short.
Ireland had done it! They had won the Grand Slam for the first time in 61 years, and only the second time in their history.
The celebrations began and, if any Irish folk were still recovering from St. Patrick's Day, they would have to do it all over again.
It was perhaps the best finish to perhaps the best Six Nations campaign ever, but in the end it was the Irish eyes that were smiling.
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