#4 – Stephen Jones’ missed last minute penalty kick. Cardiff, Wales, 2009.
The final five minutes of Ireland’s last match in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium more than deserve their place at number four on the countdown of Ireland’s most memorable sporting moments, writes Ryan Mackenzie
Following a dreary and frankly embarrassing World Cup campaign in 2007, and the pitiful performances of the 2008 Six Nations tournament, it appeared rather clear that the golden era of Irish rugby had begun to lose its shine.
Understandably, ambition was low as the 2009 season began. With nothing more than home fixtures against England and France to rouse optimism from the fans, the reign of coach Declan Kidney looked set for a grim start.
However, in a shocking turnaround, the pessimism was thwarted by some of the finest rugby ever played in an Irish jersey. The team kicked off their campaign with a stunning victory over the French in Croke Park. They continued to roll with wins in Rome, Edinburgh and another gripping contest in Dublin saw them overcome the English by a point. Kidney’s boys were flying and the nation was ecstatic.
Their last call of duty was against defending champions Wales in Cardiff, who were also chasing the title and a triple crown of their own. Only days after St. Patrick’s Day, on Sunday 21st of March, we went in search of our first Grand Slam in 61 years.
The Millennium Stadium provided the perfect setting for a match of such intense emotion. Packed full of passionate Welsh and Irish fans, the players were no doubt buoyed by the support. However, the opening half-hour provided no score, as nerves hindered the players.
With two early tries in the second-half, Ireland raced into a commanding lead. However, they failed to put Wales to bed and the home side chipped away at the lead and were only a point adrift heading into the closing minutes. A crushing comeback was on.
The Welsh surged forward in search of victory and the match descended into a heart-pounding see-saw battle. After 75 minutes, out-half Stephen Jones did the unimaginable by guiding a drop-goal through the posts to turn a Welsh deficit into a two-point lead. The unthinkable was happening and Ireland looked to have lost the ever-elusive Grand-Slam at the last hurdle.
All was not lost though. The experience of the Irish side began to show as they recovered quickly to score a drop-goal of their own and in almost identical fashion to their opponents, courtesy of Ronan O’Gara. With only two minutes to go, Ireland were ahead by a scoreline of 15-17 and the nation held its breath as a famous victory neared its conclusion.
Unfortunately, the red sea of the Welsh team were not finished and Irish fans were made to endure the longest two minutes in living memory.
With English referee Wayne Barnes almost ready to blow the final whistle, Ireland’s Paddy Wallace embarked upon a moment of madness. Just inside the Irish half with only seconds remaining, the Ulster-man gifted his opponents a penalty. Jones stepped up to take a 48m kick at goal from directly in front of the posts. A prolific kicker and experienced player, the out-half held the power to break Irish hearts.
Standing anxiously across their own try-line, the Irish players were as helpless as their fans. It truly was one of those unbearable moments in sport when preparations for the impending heartache began prematurely as it became painful to watch.
But then, in a moment of euphoria the ball dipped short of the crossbar and we had our Grand Slam. Not since 1948 had Irish rugby reached such heights and seldom before had the Irish people been subjected to a sporting moment of such solicitude and joy.