It was a sensational clash, a pulsating contest from start to finish and as entertaining as any in recent memory.
A fired-up Ireland threatened to upset the odds and claim a first ever victory over New Zealand in 108 years of trying only to be denied by an All Blacks side that simply refuses to accept it is beaten.
The stunning finale that propelled the Kiwis to a 24-22 victory was just the last dramatic act in a thriller that captivated the Aviva Stadium and millions of fans beyond. In terms of performance, it may not have been the perfect end to an historic unbeaten season – with no other side in the professional era having completed that feat – but it was a perfect example of what makes this New Zealand team the greatest side in the world.
There was not one point in this game that the All Blacks contemplated defeat. A ferocious opening from Ireland brought due reward in the form of tries for Conor Murray, Rory Best and Rob Kearney but there was not a hint of panic from the visitors. They were out-fought and out-played but had complete faith in their ability to force their way back into the contest. This composure and belief was evident in captain Richie McCaw’s decision to kick for the posts with two second half penalties when his side still trailed by a significant deficit when others would have been inclined to gamble and chase the game.
But that belief and ability to think clearly under pressure was trumped by the sweeping move that turned the game on its head in the dying moments. By this stage the game and ‘perfection’ was on the line with a repeat of last year’s season-ending defeat against England looming large but the All Blacks remained cool-headed as ever. The Kiwis’ enviable skill levels in the loose and physicality at the breakdown came to the fore as they carved their way down field where replacement Ryan Crotty eventually broke Irish hearts by levelling the scores.
But they were not done. New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden missed his first attempt at the conversion with the Irish defence bearing down on him but their charge was ruled premature and he made no mistake with the second attempt. In contrast, Ireland playmaker Jonathan Sexton did not have the benefit of ice in his veins. Handed the chance to take the game away from the All Blacks and the Irish into an eight-point lead late in the second half his form deserted him. McCaw later admitted that had he been on target it would have been ‘game over’ and you couldn’t help but think that Sexton’s apparent decision to take as much time as possible over the kick may have messed with his routine and mental preparation. The kick will haunt him but luckily his talent ensures he will have several chances to erase the memory in the future.
Roll with the punches
For forty minutes Ireland threatened to upset the world order by playing like the All Blacks. Displaying an intensity that was notably absent from their performance against Australia last weekend, Ireland appeared set on banishing the memory of their record 60-0 defeat to the All Blacks in their previous meeting last year. The back-row trio of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip swarmed all over their All Blacks rivals and denied them time and space. Scrum-half Murray was at his best and centre Brian O’Driscoll, in his last appearance against New Zealand, attacked the challenge as if this game would define his career. But crucially this was controlled mayhem with their discipline – they conceded just one penalty in the first half – a key factor in their first half dominance.
But Ireland failed to press home their advantage after the break and did not even add to their score in the second half. They could not rediscover the ferocity that had fuelled the dreams of packed Aviva Stadium and as the game wore on it was clear their first half endeavour had taken its toll. There was no such drop off from the All Blacks who dusted themselves down and clawed their way back into the game and eventually turned the tables on Ireland. With an increasing amount of possession and territory it was no surprise that Ireland’s penalty count began to climb and the scoreboard was soon telling a different story. It did not come easy, and almost didn’t come at all, and the effort required to turn the game was perhaps best summed up by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen: “We survived a shit storm.”
It ain’t over until it is over
The score was Ireland 22-17 New Zealand. The clock said 79:33. The hosts had the ball on the All Blacks’ 10m line. History was calling for Ireland and a group of players whose industry had rightfully presented them with this opportunity. But they blew their date with destiny in a way that their all-conquering rivals would never have done.
Handed one final lifeline, the All Blacks did what they do best. Twelve phases and 60m later Ireland’s chance had gone. I should be clear to every international side that it takes a performance of 80+ minutes to account for the All Blacks. And if they needed a reminder of the Kiwis’ dogged sporting DNA then they need only have cast their eye back 24 hours to see how the New Zealand rugby league side a last-gasp victory over England in their World Cup semi-final clash at Wembley.
Ireland desperately needed someone to make one big final play as the All Blacks stretched them from one touchline to the other in search of salvation. Unfortunately the obvious candidate – O’Driscoll – was sitting on the sidelines with concussion, cruelly robbed of a chance to steer his side to yet another famous victory. Others such as O’Brien and Heaslip were understandably spent having racked up an incredible 44 tackles between them.
It just was not to be. Ireland fell to their knees while New Zealand struggled to find the energy to celebrate but their fatigue will be short-lived with a beach awaiting. However, Ireland’s scars – both physical and mental – are sure to linger a lot longer.
What a game, what a year it has been for the All Blacks. Leave your tribute to this great team here…