For a generation raised on stories of the 1970s, it was the breakthrough they had waited for but had barely believed in. For a tournament that had become a two-horse race, it was the season that ushered in a new era. Those who were there will never forget what they saw in Cardiff on March 19, 2005.
Hundreds of thousands descended on the Welsh capital from early on and the weather played ball, allowing those without tickets to congregate around the big screens alongside Cardiff Castle to join in the festivities.
Travelling Ireland fans felt like gate-crashers at a wedding, even though their team could technically win the Triple Crown and the Championship with a victory.
Much like this Saturday, they were in town to poop the party but up against an emotional wave of momentum. For Wales, the equation was simple, win and their 27-year wait for a Grand Slam would be over.
Based in the city centre, Ireland were fully aware of the growing fervour as an expectant nation deprived for so long of rugby success descended on the city. Wales, meanwhile, were cocooned in the Vale of Glamorgan.
“It was very, very relaxed until we got to Cardiff,” Mike Ruddock recalls.
“We saw the thousands of people trying to get into the ground or going to watch it on big screens, just down there for the emotion of it.
“I remember talking to Reggie Corrigan and he said that Ireland had good prep, a good team meeting but by the time they got on the bus a 10-minute drive became a 25-minute drive to get through the fans, even they started to believe Wales were going to win.
“It was a force of nature having the whole country behind the team.”
Ruddock, father of current Ireland flanker Rhys, is speaking from Wales having made a bumpy ferry crossing from his home in Dublin this week.
The current coach of Lansdowne was then in his first season as Wales supremo, taking on a team that had not finished in the top half of the table since 1999.
Steve Hansen had got the attacking side of the game right and, having taken charge of the ‘A’ side, Ruddock was aware of the talent at his disposal. He felt that, if they got the set-piece right and tightened up the defence they’d have a chance.
He brought Gavin Henson into the team and the controversial, but undeniably talented, centre kicked his team to what Ruddock wryly describes as an 11-9 hammering of world champions England. That got the ball rolling and by the time they met Ireland they were nigh on unstoppable.
Despite the public expectation, Ruddock didn’t feel under pressure.
“All of these Grand Slam games, look at Ireland v France last year and even Wales against France this year, it’s small margins in that first game and then all of a sudden you build the momentum,” he says.
“So, we built the momentum and I remember my wife came into the hotel room before the team meeting on the morning of the game and I was strumming my guitar.
“I was really relaxed, it was sort of a no lose. We wanted to win the Grand Slam, but even if we didn’t we’d still had a much better season than anything that had gone before.”
The game itself is up on YouTube for all to see, a throwback to an era that included some of the dodgiest hair-cuts the game has seen and a game that is unrecognisable from the collision-fest we’ll see on Saturday.
For an Irish team at the end of a frustrating campaign, it is a tough watch.
A good start is undone by errors. Ronan O’Gara is charged down by Gethin Jenkins, who controls the ball with his feet and dived over to score, the game is up. Kevin Morgan’s second-half score completed the job, but the game was long up before the end.
“It was a bad day for me,” O’Gara recalled in his 2008 autobiography. “Being charged down is an occupational hazard, but you never expect it to happen against a loosehead prop. I never saw him coming… he hasn’t stopped thanking me since.”
Ruddock recalls his defence coach Clive Griffiths devising a plan to put pressure on the Ireland No 10, but admits that the No 1 charging him down was beyond his wildest dreams.
It was frustrating day for an Irish team on the up, but the victory changed the dynamic of the tournament as the Welsh win ended a period of Anglo-French dominance that saw them claim all but one of the 19 preceding titles.
Since 2005, Wales have added three more titles with a pair of Grand Slams, Ireland have won four with two clean sweeps, France and England have a pair of titles with one Grand Slam each. It was a watershed moment.
“If Wales win on Saturday it’ll be their fourth Grand Slam in 14 years and that’s a pretty amazing stat. Ireland have won three Championships, one a Grand Slam, since Joe took over and there was Declan (Kidney)’s Grand Slam too.
“Those two countries have been very consistent, very well organised and very well coached.
“But in 2005 it was a bit of a surprise that Wales came through. We had the makings of a good team, but I think the fact that we were defending better and were a bit more solid at the set-piece gave us the chance of living with a couple of the bigger sides like England and Ireland.”
His time at the top in Wales would be fleeting but, while the wrangling that ultimately forced him out of the gig undermined his enjoyment of the day to an extent, he reflects on it now with fond memories.
The on-pitch hugs from singers Charlotte Church and Katherine Jenkins were worth a scolding from his Irish wife Bernadette, while he picked up his guitar again that evening and played into the wee hours.
Fourteen years on, he’ll be an interested observer with a foot in both camps.
“I don’t think there’ll be much in this game, if Ireland keep the roof shut it could help Wales I think to move the ball a bit more and perhaps use some width on the game which tends to be part of the Welsh psyche; using foot-work and continuity,” he says of Saturday’s clash.
“Ireland have got an enormous pack, they pummelled the French pack into submission really. If the roof is open, a bit of wet weather would make it an arm wrestle and that could definitely help Ireland edge it.”
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