Ireland were denied a sensational victory against World Champions New Zealand losing 22-24, the All Blacks scoring a try in the last play of the game to win. The result will be terribly disappointing for Ireland, having performed brilliantly throughout the game.
Despite taking a 19-0 lead at the Aviva Stadium with tries from Conor Murray, Rory Best and Rob Kearney, New Zealand responded with a try through Julien Savea and eventually manages to secure a win in the face of fearsome defending by the Irish with a Ryan Crotty try.
Ireland ran New Zealand ragged all match, fighting tooth and nail in attack and defending shoulder-to-shoulder with intensity, even the wingers charging at black-shirted attackers. They approached the game like a goat at a butting post, crashing upfield, with props offloading to hookers, trundling unstoppably forward for first Conor Murray to snipe over and then, minutes later, Rory Best to muscle through for a second try.
The luck of the Irish was laid on thick, with every bounce seemingly falling into gleeful Irish hands – Israel Dagg uncharacteristically spilling the ball into Rob Kearney’s hands, Kearney pinning his ears back to run 75 meters to the whitewash.
New Zealand were shell-shocked. Three tries down in their final Test of the year, against a team that most recently lost to an out-of-sorts Australia. This was meant to be their swan-song, the final fixture of an unbeaten 2013. The winning mentality, unstoppable breakaway tries and deft offloads out the back of the hand all seemed distant memories. It seemed that at every moment critique an Irishman was there waiting, ready to thrust a hand, throw an arm or body in the way and disrupt the All Black magic.
One All Black stood out among the rest all afternoon: Aaron Cruden showed a clear head while the rest of his team was reeling, slotting a wonderful grubber through for Savea to ghost in under the posts untouched. The score 19-7, both teams showed tenacious endeavour, organisation and attacking abandon.
Ireland seemed intent on debunking the myth of All Black invincibility, Cian Healy steamrolling Richie McCaw and O’Driscoll battling through Ma’a Nonu. It was truly compulsive viewing. Ireland continued to charge, attack, ruck and scrap all game, O’Driscoll exemplifying their approach – crawling, dragging himself forward along the floor. Ireland managed to push ahead to 22-7 with a penalty from Sexton before half time.
The second half saw a resumption of the first-half intensity. Barring a dysfunctional scrum, for which referee Nigel Owens berated both packs of forwards, the game maintained its heady speed, with both sides playing full-throttle attacking rugby. Cynics will say that New Zealand were not playing well, but in truth they were overwhelmed by Irish urgency as they refused New Zealand time and space, not allowing them to put together phases.
Time and time again New Zealand probed and tested, waiting to feed upon any mistakes but instead found themselves wanting, spilling the ball and giving away penalties. For their dominance of possession and territory, however, Cruden managed to slot over one of two penalties to make the score 22-10.
After the 60 minute mark, with many Ireland players (including an apparently concussed Brian O’Driscoll) subbed off, the Kiwis at last woke up, saw the scoreline and turned up the heat. Suddenly the offloads were back, Kieran Read providing a trademark offload for Savea out wide, Blitzkreig rucking and driving towards the line to allow substitute Ben Franks to barge over to make it 22-17 after the conversion with fifteen minutes left.
As The Fields of Athenry rang out from the Irish support as the game became wildly frenetic in the last ten minutes, the Irish fans eager for a first-ever victory against the New Zealanders. A wonderful Irish backs move saw them earn a line-out 10 meters out. The driving maul geared up, rolling seemingly irresistibly forward before being dragged down for a penalty. Jonathan Sexton’s kick drifted inches wide, though. At this point, memories of the England Rugby League team’s painful last-minute semi-final loss to New Zealand the day before came to mind. Surely not another British team would suffer at the hands of Kiwi rugby dominance?
The script from the day before, though, was to repeat itself with eerie accuracy. Just as it seemed that Ireland had run down the clock and seen the game off, New Zealand struck, working the ball downfield in their trademark style, passing the ball across the field and back again to score in overtime. To make the gut-wrenching blow all the worse, Cruden’s initial conversion missed but an early charge-down attempt by the Irish players meant he could retake the kick. He made no mistake with the second attempt.
The touch judges seemed to raise their flags ruefully to award the conversion: Ireland’s plucky underdog tag was irresistible for the neutral viewer. New Zealand proved their pedigree, though – the sporting cliché that truly great teams know how to win ugly was proved correct yet again and this New Zealand team, despite a messy, error-strewn performance, are truly great and have achieved a full year of victories.