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Millennium men too hot for the dragons

It was an evening of pure theatre, the drama being wonderfully played out right up until that last scene when the plot's final dialogue provided a final twist to take us way beyond the edge of our seats.

As Stephen Jones stood over the kick that could have broken Irish hearts, it seemed almost unthinkable that he could miss. Another Grand Slam seemed destined to end in wreckage and all anyone could do was watch.

The Welsh out-half struck the ball and the contact seemed good. It began its ascent and Ireland's cruel fate already seemed sealed as its trajectory took it on a well plotted course towards passing between the uprights...

Even before the teams had entered the arena, this occasion felt special and had an even sharper edge than back in 2006 when Munster came to Cardiff determined not to leave empty-handed on their third Heineken Cup final appearance.

Cardiff was bathed in Spring sunshine, but few were distracted by the glorious weather. The streets were heaving at the seams with credit-crunch beating Irish supporters and the ever over-confident Welsh contingent who were already buying into an outcome that promised a Championship and Triple Crown. And why not? Grand Slams in 2005 and last season had rightly done nothing to blunt their inner belief which had been further fuelled by Warren Gatland and co's derogatory comments earlier this week about Ireland.

And then, looming ominously large over us all, stood the Millennium Stadium.

Admittedly a reasonably happy hunting ground in recent years for both Ireland and of course Munster, who have won both their Heineken Cups within its walls, but somehow the citadel seemed more menacing than before; ready and willing to de-rail Ireland's hopes at landing the prize that had eluded them since rationing was the norm and Josef Stalin was still unleashing fear and loathing in the old Soviet Union.

The pre-match ritual was full of appropriate menace and frightening pyrotechnics.

Flame machines spat out their fury on the far side of the pitch to the so-called, ‘Dragon's Mouth'; the entry point for the teams, on other words the tunnel.

So much fire was being created that those in the front rows could feel the heat being generated at a point that was rather too close for comfort and after Ireland had entered the spectacular arena, the showmanship embarked on a new phase with smoke billowing and lights flashing inside the tunnel.

Just when you felt the stadium was destined to combust from all the smoke and flame and the understandable delay from the Welsh team from daring to enter the tunnel, Ryan Jones and co somehow emerged without the fire service having to be deployed.

All the fire and brimstone certainly had an effect with Donncha O'Callaghan and Ryan Jones having a major disagreement with less than two minutes gone on the clock.

Indeed, it was a typical first half with Ireland just about holding their own but giving Stephen Jones two shots at goal which he gratefully accepted.

But Wales weren't finished yet.

Ireland supporters with already shredded nerves were given little solace during the half

time break as Wales paraded their winning squad from the World Cup Sevens and the inference was there for all to appreciate; this would be the first of two winning celebrations with the Triple Crown and maybe even Championship to come after another 40 minutes had elapsed.

We might have known what was about to happen. Ireland returned full of cussedness and determination, putting together a three minute package that brought them 14 points with Brian O'Driscoll and Tommy Bowe doing their stuff.

Suddenly it all looked a done deal but Stephen Jones had other ideas. Two penalties and a drop goal meant Wales had it by a point with five minutes to play.

And what a final five minutes.

O'Gara's awesomely executed drop goal replaced the gathering gloom with a rejuvenated belief that this could be about to happen.

But then it was back to Stephen Jones and belief had now become despair. He lined it up and sent the ball on its way. was 48 metres to the posts but the contact was good and the ball sailed on its way. The course was plotted, the outcome surely inevitable as all 74,645 watched and awaited the ball to complete its journey.

Ireland's season and hopes all crystallised into these few seconds and, as if sensing the enormity of the occasion and the pain it would inflict on Ireland and their long-suffering supporters, the ball thought better of it and tumbled to earth just short of clearing the crossbar.

Geordan Murphy claimed it and ran towards the corner seemingly unsure what to do while Paul O'Connell leapt up and down like a man possessed screaming at Murphy that time was up and to kick the thing dead.

Murphy obliged and it was over.

In the bedlam that followed, Jack Kyle was caught on camera benignly looking on as a tidal wave of emotion overwhelmed the Millennium Stadium.

At last, the deed was done and the baton had finally been handed on.

Belfast Telegraph


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