Ireland 12 - 16 Wales: Wales lift triple crown
SHANE Williams plundered the decisive try as Wales continued their Grand Slam march with a deserved victory over Ireland at Croke Park.
Wales dominated the encounter yet had to wait until the 57th minute to pierce the Irish defence, with the elusive Williams dancing over to wrestle the Triple Crown from their opponents. 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 fly-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 dangerman and his assessment was proved correct as the Munster fly-half continued his imperious run of form. He slotted four penalties in 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.
A petty series of mind games – most of it stemming from the Welsh camp – preceded the build-up but Ireland seemed to have taken little notice as they made a strong start. With just seconds on the clock, O'Gara rejected the chance to kick at goal and drilled the ball into touch. They 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 Rob Kearney was on hand to clean up Mark Taylor's chip.
The pressure continued however with John Hayes penalised for not binding at the scrum. Jones accepted the routine shot at goal but pushed it wide.
Hayes' Munster captain O'Gara then produced a beautifully-executed chip to push the red shirts on to the back foot. The Lions fly-half punished another Welsh infringement to extend the lead then produced a magnificent touchfinder that bounced off the corner flag.
Wales 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 forced him to drop the ball just before the line and television match official Dudley Phillips spotted the mistake. Soon after Stephen Jones found his mark with a penalty to complete a potentially crucial ten-point swing.
The balance of power continued to shift as superb handling and offloads from Wales – with Tom Shanklin prominent – began to force some openings.
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 with 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 Mike Phillips was seen dropping a knee into the back of Marcus Horan. The linesman 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, 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 grand stand finish. Ireland's hopes finally evaporated when Hook landed a long-range penalty.
It was left to history-maker Williams to pay tribute to an outstanding all-round team performance
which helped Wales wrap up the triple crown and sees them now targeting the grand slam with a title-clinching victory over France next week.
"It is amazing. It was a very good performance by the Irish, but we stuck at it," said Williams. "The last five minutes were the longest five minutes of my life. But the forwards stuck at it, and we deserved it."
Ireland: R Kearney, S Horgan, B O'Driscoll (c), A Trimble, T Bowe, R O'Gara, E Reddan, J Heaslip, D Wallace, D Leamy, P O'Connell, D O'Callaghan, J Hayes, R Best, M Horan.
Replacements: Bernard Jackman, Tony Buckley, Mick O'Driscoll, Simon Easterby, Peter Stringer, Paddy Wallace, Luke Fitzgerald.
Wales: L Byrne, M Jones, T Shanklin, G Henson, S Williams, S Jones, M Phillips, R Jones (c), M Williams, J Thomas, A Wyn Jones, I Gough, A Jones, H Bennett, G Jenkins.
Replacements: M Rees, D Jones, I Evans, G Delve, D Peel, J Hook, S Parker.
Scorers: Wales – Try: S Williams. Conversion: S Jones. Penalties: S Jones (2), Hook. Ireland – Penalties: O'Gara (4)
Referee: W Barnes (England)
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