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England's Grand Slam dream shattered

Richard Seeckts
March 14, 2013
Scott Gibbs is mobbed after his winning try against England © Getty Images
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England may just have the painful defeat Wales inflicted on them 14 years ago in the back of their minds when they head to the Millennium Stadium this weekend. They were denied the Grand Slam then, and lightning could strike twice when the sides renew battle in a Six Nations decider on Saturday.

"Sport does not come much better, nor embrace so many twists and turns, as the last episode of rugby union's Five Nations Championship," reported The Times after Wales' stunning last gasp win denied England a Grand Slam back in 1999 and handed the Championship to Scotland on points difference.

Scotland, in turn, had condemned France to the wooden spoon with a 36-22 win in Paris the previous day, their fans singing 'Bread of Heaven' as they departed the Stade de France aware of what an improbable Welsh victory over England would mean for them.

With Italy set to join the championship in 2000, 89 years of Five Nations rugby climaxed in the spring sunshine at Wembley with underdog Wales' injury-time try deciding the match in their favour. Scott Gibbs' name was elevated to the top table of Welsh rugby heroes. For Neil Jenkins, whose vital conversion sealed the win, it capped a perfect day of eight successful kicks from eight. Gibbs and Jenkins had made their debuts for Wales together as 19-year-olds in 1991 and this was their finest hour in Welsh jerseys (notwithstanding their 1997 Lions heroics in South Africa).

Wembley was used as Wales' temporary home while Cardiff's Millennium Stadium was under construction, great efforts being made to ensure it felt like home. Huge numbers of fans made the trip from Wales, while Max Boyce and Tom Jones stirred up the pre-match atmosphere.

Form favoured Sir Clive Woodward's England whose defence had been magnificent all season. The blocks upon which World Cup success would be built were in place among the forwards and 19-year-old Jonny Wilkinson was cutting his teeth among the backs.

England dominated the first half. Full back Matt Perry's break from inside England's half in the third minute created the space for him to send Dan Luger to the try line from 30 yards out. Steve Hanley scored in what turned out to be his only international match, before Richard Hill barged his way over after two Welsh defenders collided under a chip kick from Matt Dawson and spilled the ball.

While it seemed there was no stopping England at one end, their indiscipline gave Jenkins regular penalty opportunities at the other, which he gratefully converted to points. Dissent from Neil Back gave away ten metres that brought Jenkins within range of the posts. Jason Leonard and Tim Rodber both had spells in the sin-bin; one reason Wales were able to prosper at the lineout through Wyatt and Craig Quinnell.

A perfect six out of six from Jenkins ensured Wales were still in the game at half-time, 25-18 down but within touching distance.

Wales drew level again soon after the break. A long miss-pass from Jenkins to Shane Howarth wide on the right made space beyond England's defence for a try which Jenkins predictably converted. Two Wilkinson penalties gave England a six-point lead as time was running out.

A Grand Slam for England was all but secure until the second minute of injury-time when Wales lock Chris Wyatt tapped the ball off the top of the lineout to Rob Howley. Howley flung left to Scott Quinnell who juggled the ball and fed on to the rampaging Gibbs. In a trice Gibbs broke through the flailing arms of Rodber, on past three more English would-be tacklers and touched down a few yards to the right of the posts. Rodber's hitherto brilliant game was in tatters, for no-one doubted that Jenkins would add the conversion to seal the win.

Richard Hill gets to grips with Neil Jenkins © PA Photos
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"He's like the leader in a buffalo stampede, that lad Scott Gibbs," proclaimed Bill McLaren to television viewers, and few at Wembley could have found better words for the moment English hearts were broken.

A tense couple of minutes followed, all of Wales held its breath as Mike Catt made a last gasp attempt at a drop goal to steal the match back for England, but his kick fell short and right of the posts where Howarth took the mark. He then hoofed the ball into the Wembley crowd, referee Watson blew his whistle and a remarkable victory was complete.

The Welsh in the crowd were delirious, the English dumbstruck. Elsewhere Scottish fans celebrated their first Five Nations Championship win since 1990. England captain Lawrence Dallaglio acknowledged, "Our ill-discipline in the first half kept them in the game," while stunned coach Woodward was incredulous; "I still won't believe we lost this game when I wake up in the morning."

Gibbs had provided the moment, but Jenkins' kicking had been vital to the win. Wales' coach Graham Henry, a man not given to hyperbole, said "I have never seen a kicking display better than that. If the posts had been two metres apart instead of ten, Neil Jenkins would still have kicked all his points."

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