Ireland slipped to their second defeat of the 2008 RBS Six Nations championship at Croke Park on Saturday as, thanks mainly to Shane Williams’ second half try, unbeaten Wales took the spoils and lifted the Triple Crown trophy.
2008 RBS SIX NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Saturday, March 8
IRELAND 12 WALES 16, Croke Park
Scorers: Ireland: Pens: Ronan O’Gara 4
Wales: Try: Shane Williams; Con: Stephen Jones; Pens: Stephen Jones 2, James Hook
Shane Williams plundered the decisive try as Wales continued their Grand Slam march with a hard-fought but deserved victory over Ireland at Croke Park.
Wales dominated the encounter yet had to wait until the 51st-minute to pierce the Irish defence with the elusive Williams dancing over to wrestle the Triple Crown from Eddie O’Sullivan’s home side.
It was the Ospreys winger’s 40th Test try, equalling the record set by Gareth Thomas, and lifted his remarkable strike rate to 11 tries in eight games.
Llanelli out-half Stephen Jones contributed two penalties and a conversion while his eventual replacement James Hook weighed in with a late three points.
Wales controlled long passages of play, refusing to give up possession, but Ireland’s muscular defence held up impressively until Williams’ moment of magic.
Warren Gatland had identified Ronan O’Gara as Ireland’s main danger man and his assessment was proved correct as the Munster out-half continued his imperious run of form.
He slotted four penalties from four attempts and his kicking from hand was one of Ireland’s few sources of refuge from the relentless Welsh assault.
But even the majestic O’Gara could not conjure the crucial try as the mediocrity around him ensured the Welsh line was seriously threatened only once.
Wales played a quarter of the match with 14 men following the sin-binning of Mike Phillips and Martyn Williams but Ireland could still not break through.
Expectation over the match had been heightened by O’Sullivan’s prediction it would be the clash of the 2008 Six Nations, but the high-octane thriller failed to materialise.
With just seconds on the clock, O’Gara rejected the chance to kick at goal and drilled the ball into touch. Ireland won the line-out and spent the next three minutes inching up field, eventually forcing a frustrated Wales to concede under the posts and this time O’Gara took the three points.
The Welsh reacted swiftly when Ireland sought to press home their early superiority and became over-stretched, but the impressive Rob Kearney, making his first appearance for Ireland at full-back, was on hand to clean up Mark Taylor’s chip.
The pressure continued however with John Hayes – who has been enjoying an impressive Six Nations – penalised for not binding at the scrum.
Jones accepted the routine shot at goal but pushed it wide, Wales’ first missed penalty of the championship.
Hayes’ Munster colleague O’Gara has also been in imperious form and one beautifully-executed chip pushed the red shirts onto the back foot.
The Corkman punished another Welsh infringement to extend the lead and then produced a magnificent touch-finder that bounced off the touchline and then the corner flag.
Wales were buckling and appeared to have cracked in the 23rd-minute when Shane Horgan skipped his way past two defenders and dashed for the line.
But last-ditch intervention from scrum half Mike Phillips just prevented the big winger from making the line and television match official David Changleng spotted the mistake.
Soon after, Stephen Jones found his mark with a penalty to complete a potentially crucial 10-point swing for Ireland.
The balance of power continued to shift as superb handling and offloads from Wales – with Tom Shanklin prominent – began to force some openings.
Full-back Lee Byrne was shoved into touch five metres short of the line and Wales then created a large overlap but Kearney scrambled to avert the danger.
Ireland repelled waves of attacks yet there was no sign of their defence splitting as Wales kept the ball in hand and probed for weaknesses.
It was going to take something special to pierce the green wall and captain Ryan Jones almost provided it was a bulldozing run from the base of the scrum.
Stephen Jones took the ball on and the Irish infringed, offering Wales an easy three points that were snatched away when Phillips was seen dropping a knee into the back of Marcus Horan.
Touch judge Christophe Berdos alerted referee Wayne Barnes and the English official produced a yellow card, leaving Wales with nothing to show for their dominance.
Stephen Jones was on target six minutes into the second half, however, as the Welsh continued to pound away with a huge kick from Gavin Henson cranking up the pressure.
Finally, Ireland gave way. Shane Williams taking Stephen Jones’ pass and slipping out of the clutches of Andrew Trimble and beating a despairing lunge from Kearney.
The try was thoroughly deserved given Wales’ stranglehold on the game but the Irish were offered a glimmer of hope when Jamie Heaslip surged into space.
In the midst of the scramble to halt the Leinster back row, Martyn Williams executed a cynical trip on Eoin Reddan and was dispatched to the sin-bin.
O’Gara slotted the penalty to slash the deficit to 13-9 and then added his fourth of the afternoon to set up a grandstand finish.
Ireland skipper Brian O’Driscoll was limping badly after injurying his hamstring at a ruck and conceded defeat in the 71st-minute. He was replaced by Six Nations debutant Luke Fitzgerald and Ireland’s hopes finally evaporated when Hook landed a long range penalty.
Wales face France in Cardiff next Saturday where they will be seeking to complete the Grand Slam they last won in 2005, while all that is left for Ireland is a trip to Twickenham and the hope that they can rally themselves to beat England for the fifth successive year.
TIME LINE: 5 minutes – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 3-0; 11 mins – Wales penalty: missed by Stephen Jones – 3-0; 19 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 6-0; 26 mins – Wales penalty: Stephen Jones – 6-3; 30 mins – Wales penalty: missed by Stephen Jones – 6-3; 39 mins – Wales yellow card: Mike Phillips (dropping a knee on a player); Half-time – Ireland 6 Wales 3; 46 mins – Wales penalty: Stephen Jones – 6-6; 51 mins – Wales try: Shane Williams – 6-11; conversion: Stephen Jones – 6-13; 62 mins – Wales yellow card: Martyn Williams (foot trip on a player); 62 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 9-13; 68 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 12-13; 75 mins – Wales penalty: James Hook – 12-16; Full-time – Ireland 12 Wales 16
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Shane Horgan, Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe; Ronan O’Gara, Eoin Reddan; Marcus Horan, Rory Best, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O?Connell, Denis Leamy, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements used: Bernard Jackman for Best, Tony Buckley for Hayes, Luke Fitzgerald for O’Driscoll (all 71). Not used: Mick O’Driscoll, Simon Easterby, Peter Stringer, Paddy Wallace.
WALES: Lee Byrne; Mark Jones, Tom Shanklin, Gavin Henson, Shane Williams; Stephen Jones, Mike Phillips; Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Ian Gough, Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Thomas, Martyn Williams, Ryan Jones (capt).
Replacements used: James Hook for S Jones (65 mins), Duncan Jones for Adam Jones (72), Gareth Delve for R Jones (75). Not used: Gareth Williams, Ian Evans, Dwayne Peel, Sonny Parker.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)