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Wales beat Ireland for grand slam

CARDIFF, Wales -- Wales won their first grand slam for 27 years when they beat Ireland 32-20 in a Six Nations showdown overflowing with passion and commitment.

Wales had not beaten Ireland in Cardiff for 22 years and, despite a nervy start and tumultuous finale, deserved the win that brought their first championship since 1994 and ecstasy to thousands of Welsh fans packed into the Millennium Stadium.

Tries in each half for prop Gethin Jenkins and fullback Kevin Morgan set up the victory which was sealed by the kicking of fly-half Stephen Jones, who scored 16 points.

There was little of the fearless, free-flowing backline play that had characterized Wales's march through the tournament but they were just as impressive for standing toe to toe with a vastly experienced Irish pack.

Wales's ninth clean sweep is all the more remarkable as it comes just two years after they finished bottom of the table after losing every match.

"It's brilliant, awesome," said scrum-half Dwayne Peel. "We've got through some tough times, some dark periods together. We gave everything we've got."

A first home win over England for 13 years, a destruction of Italy in Rome, an extraordinary comeback victory over France in Paris and a record thrashing of Scotland in Edinburgh set up Wales for Saturday's spectacular against an Ireland team who had won their five previous meetings.

France's 56-13 win over Italy earlier on Saturday had kept them in the hunt and left Ireland needing a win by at least 15 points to take the title for the first time in 20 years.

If anyone doubted what the occasion meant to Wales they had only to tour Cardiff's city centre in the morning as queues snaked from every pub, part of an estimated 70,000 ticketless throng desperate to share in the day.

Wales suffered a pre-match blow when electric winger Rhys Williams was ruled out and replaced by Mark Taylor, the former British and Irish Lions centre who had not played on the wing for 10 years.

The enormity of the occasion made Wales edgy in the early stages as Jones missed a straightforward early penalty after Irish fly-half Ronan O'Gara had given Ireland a 3-0 lead.

Calmed nerves

Centre Gavin Henson, the man who launched the whole grand slam dream with his last-gasp penalty to beat England, leveled the scores and calmed the nerves with a drop goal.

Ireland remained the more dominant side but everything turned in the most unlikely of circumstances as Jenkins charged down an O'Gara kick and controlled the ball expertly to score the game's first try.

The pressure appeared to lift from Wales as they stretched their lead to 16-6 at halftime with a penalty each for Jones and, from inside his own half, Henson.

Two further Jones penalties in the first 10 minutes of the second half raised Welsh belief as stand-in captain Michael Owen drove his side on remorselessly and winger Shane Williams grew in confidence and invention.

The hymn 'Bread of Heaven' rang round the Millennium Stadium and the success-starved home fans were roaring even louder after 57 minutes when centre Tom Shanklin burst through to set up Morgan for the score that effectively sealed the grand slam.

"It's unbelievable to be honest, the atmosphere and support today was fantastic. They carried us through a difficult game," said Shane Williams whose tackle on Anthony Foley as the giant number eight dived over the line summed up Welsh resistance.

Replacement forward Marcus Horan and fullback Geordan Murphy set up a tense finale with converted tries as the visitors were finally able to exert pressure when David Humphreys came on for O'Gara.

But Wales kept their composure and hung on to spark the mother of all parties.

Massive win

Welsh coach Mike Ruddock said: "It was a massive win today. The players have been through a lot of hard times and come out the other side.

"You've got to look back to halftime of the France game, 15-6 down at halftime to the champions. We showed character and fortitude to get the results."

Wales came back to beat France 24-18 in Paris. "After that we knew there was a chance. Now we've got the grand slam, it's brilliant," Ruddock said.

"It's been a long time coming, a lot of these guys are too young to remember some of those days of the 70s and it brought back the memories of those days.

"It's been easy for us (coaches) we've just told them to go out and play. We've given them a licence to thrill."

Tryscorer Morgan said: "It was something different today. I've never heard the anthem sung that loud. The noise coming from the crowd at the end was fantastic and dragged us to the end really."

Captain Michael Owen said: "There are so many emotions - exhaustion, relief. It's probably not going to sink in for a couple of weeks."

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