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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 March, 2005, 22:03 GMT
Belief and relief flow in Cardiff
By Matt Majendie
BBC Sport at the Millennium Stadium

Welsh fans celebrate victory at the final whistle
When referee Chris White blew the final whistle, the Red Dragon nation breathed a communal sigh of relief amid a chorus of cheers that would keep Cardiff awake into the early hours.

Wales had deservedly ended their 27-year wait for Grand Slam success, although by their own admission not with the sort of slick, classy performance that has typified their Six Nations campaign.

A niggling Ireland made them work for the victory but, despite the visitors' late pressure, the Welsh capital gave the impression of a place ready to make history from the outset on Saturday.

The Welsh have learned not to count their chickens after missed opportunities in 1988 and 1994.

But from the moment the build-up started to the Six Nations decider, Cardiff was awash with Slam believers.

It was the most colourful, loud and magical crowd I have ever experienced
Injured Wales captain Gareth Thomas
A carnival-style atmosphere swamped the capital long before lunch - a billboard poster from the national side's main sponsors Brains going even further and hailing Wales as the 2007 world champions.

After their latest achievement in one of the most open Six Nations in recent memory, few would disagree they have the brains and brawn to take on the best.

Coach Mike Ruddock and his players have rarely showed nerves in this tournament, even as the team coach was swamped through the streets of Cardiff 90 minutes before kick-off.

A handful of players waved at the gathered throngs, but few faces on board hinted at the magnitude of the occasion for a country starved of rugby success since their 1978 glory.

Among the more bizarre sights at City Hall, where a big screen was erected for those without tickets, were six Gavin Henson look-alikes, equipped with Welsh kit, silver boots and all the fake tan and hair gel that Cardiff's pharmacies could muster.

Catherine Jenkins and Charlotte Church at the Millennium Stadium
Catherine Jenkins and Charlotte Church led the Welsh anthem
With Welsh entertainer Max Boyce cranking up the pre-match singing inside the Millennium Stadium, the sense of fevered anticipation swelled further.

A few doubts did creep into the Welsh consciousness, however, once play finally began.

A rare show of nerves from the players first saw Ronan O'Gara kick Ireland ahead and then the previously unflappable Stephen Jones miss a penalty in the opening minutes.

With the crowd momentarily becalmed, murmurs of "here we go again" crept in from the ocean of nail-biting Red Dragon followers.

Those doubts subsided though with a moment of individual brilliance which has so often typified Wales this season.

But rather than the whirling dervishes in the backs delivering the goods, it was the unlikely figure of prop Gethin Jenkins who put them ahead by touching down his own charge-down of Ronan O'Gara's failed clearance.

Martyn Williams and Kevin Morgan celebrate Wales' victory
Martyn Williams and Kevin Morgan show their relief at victory
A drop-goal and monster penalty from Henson, whose girlfriend Charlotte Church belted out the national anthem beforehand, settled things still further.

With still an hour to go, the game was by no means over, but from there an almost tangible buzz of belief started to grow in the stands.

Holding a handsome first-half lead, Kevin Morgan effectively sealed it with his second-half try despite Ireland's late fightback.

In some twitchy dying moments, the 80,000-strong crowd implored the referee to blow the final whistle.

When he duly obliged, they erupted.

Injured captain Gareth Thomas hailed it as the "most colourful, loud and magical crowd" he had ever experienced.

Thomas hinted he would be reluctant to end the celebrations and head back to work in France, where he plays his club rugby, on Monday.

The entire Welsh population will no doubt be feeling the same way.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Highlights: Wales 32-20 Ireland


Interview: Wales coach Mike Ruddock


Interview: Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan


Presentation: Wales lift the Six Nations Trophy



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