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Slamtastic Welsh heroes make history

Slamtastic Welsh Heroes Make History

Celebrations: Wales fans start the party

Wonderful Wales won their first Grand Slam for 27 years - and sent a proud rugby nation into raptures - as they clinched the RBS 6 Nations title at an emotion-charged Millennium Stadium.

A Triple Crown also came as part of Wales' luxurious package amid a clean sweep of honours in European rugby's blue riband event.

The 1978 heroes - Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams - have now been emulated by a modern-day set.

New kids are on the block - Shane Williams, Gavin Henson, Dwayne Peel and unlikely try-scoring star Gethin Jenkins - with coach Mike Ruddock able to celebrate a remarkable achievement just 12 months after replacing New Zealander Steve Hansen.

The shoots of revival were first displayed during heroic World Cup defeats against New Zealand and England in Australia 16 months ago.

But Ruddock's men are suddenly the real deal - just two years after suffering an embarrassing Six Nations whitewash - and Ireland never came close to denying Wales the mother of all parties.

The Gwent Valleys-born Ruddock only took charge last March, yet in that short space of time he has arrived at the Holy Grail.

Jenkins and full-back Kevin Morgan scored tries in each half, while fly-half controller Stephen Jones kicked 16 points and spiky-haired centre Gavin Henson typically made his mark through an audacious drop-goal and penalty.

Ireland, whose own Grand Slam dream was destroyed by France in Dublin last weekend, failed to recover from such a huge psychological setback.

And Wales, driven by irresistible momentum, simply needed no second invitation to paint Cardiff red as injured skipper Gareth Thomas and his replacement, number eight Michael Owen, lifted the trophy.

It was one of the great sporting occasions, underlining beyond any shadow of doubt that Wales have reclaimed their place at world rugby's top table.

Sun bathed the Millennium Stadium, complete with its open roof, for several hours before kick-off, and there was an inevitable shirt-sleeved carnival atmosphere as Wales' day of destiny reached crunch time.

The pre-match festivities were on a par with Wembley five years ago when Wales thwarted England's Five Nations Grand Slam hopes 32-31 thanks to a smash and grab raid from Scott Gibbs and Neil Jenkins.

Max Boyce belted out his "Hymns and Arias" rugby anthem - complete with updated verses - while opera star Katherine Jenkins and Charlotte Church, girlfriend of Wales centre Gavin Henson, combined for the Welsh National Anthem.

But Wales were forced to make a late change when right-wing Rhys Williams cried off with a leg injury and was replaced by experienced Llanelli Scarlets back Mark Taylor.

Williams had been a fitness fear for Wales in the early part of the week but his late withdrawal had shades of 1978 when Gerald Davies pulled put just before kick-off, and Newport's Gareth Evans took over.

O'Gara kicked Ireland into a 3-0 lead inside four minutes, and Welsh nerves were evident when opposite number Jones missed a penalty chance to tie the scores.

The tension was at fever-pitch, illustrated when Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll stamped on Brent Cockbain after being tackled by the Wales lock, then the home side drew level through a 13th-minute Henson drop-goal.

It was fast and furious action, in keeping with the hype surrounding such a high profile occasion, but Wales gradually grew into the game and their momentum was rewarded.

O'Gara once again proved himself a liability under pressure and, when he attempted to clear from just outside his own 22, he found Jenkins applying suffocating pressure.

Jenkins got his hands on the ball, then kicked on with the Irish line in sight and calmly finished for his third Test try. Jones slotted the conversion, and Wales were up and running, 10-3 ahead.

It got even better for Wales on 23 minutes when Henson revived memories of his match-winning penalty in the Six Nations opener against England six weeks ago.

Whereas against England, the silver-booted star struck gold from 44 metres, this time he landed a 52-metre penalty to similarly raucous acclaim, and Wales cruised into the second quarter 13-3 ahead.

Ireland showcased their attacking prowess just two minutes later when Denis Hickie was freed in space, but his fellow wing Girvan Dempsey was held up by a superb Taylor tackle, and Wales cleared the danger.

As if to rub Irish noses in it, Jones booted an angled 30th-minute penalty, hoisting Wales 16-3 ahead and raising hopes of a first Welsh victory over Ireland in Cardiff since 1983.

O'Gara slotted a second penalty - from just inside Wales' half - as the interval approached, but Wales looked far more dangerous with ball in hand, and their territorial dominance illustrated that greater sense of adventure.

Ireland knew they needed a score before the break and, when scrum-half Peter Stringer inched them into Wales' 22, there was hope, only for another visiting infringement to undo those best efforts.

Wales began the second period by extending their advantage through a Jones penalty and Ireland had it all to do.

Morgan's try put Wales in sight of silverware and, to the accompaniment of impassioned singing, they closed the deal, even allowing for replacement prop Marcus Horan's 67th-minute try that David Humphreys improved.

Leicester full-back Geordan Murphy also touched down seven minutes from time - Humphreys again slotted the conversion - but Wales had done enough.

The closing minutes were simply a party waiting to happen and, when English referee Chris White blew his final whistle, tears of emotion took over amid unrestrained celebratory scenes.

Wales scrum-half Dwayne Peel hailed his side's Grand Slam success as an "awesome" achievement this afternoon.

Peel was an instrumental figure as Wales overcame Ireland in the their final RBS 6 Nations match at the Millennium Stadium to win a first Grand Slam since 1978.

Peel said: "It is brilliant. It is a credit to the team. We have come through some dark periods.

"The fans came out and the boys performed. It is awesome. There were also 40,000 fans in Scotland last week, and it is just awesome.

"They came at us all guns blazing but we played very well and defended the line. We gave it everything we'd got.

"For Wales to win the Grand Slam for the first time in 27 years is something special."

Team-mate Shane Williams also paid tribute to the Welsh supporters. He said: "This is unbelievable to be honest and the supporters were tremendous. Any team coming to Cardiff when it's like this are going to find it difficult."

(First Published on the South Wales Argus website on Saturday 19th March 2005)