Ireland 22 New Zealand 24: It was probably only appropriate that the world champions should have to stage a comeback of unimaginable proportions as Ireland, whitewashed by the Wallabies a week earlier, produced their most stunning performance in years to race into a 19-0 lead after just 18 minutes.
Inevitably, the All Blacks, down 22-7 at the break, came back in the second half, but Ireland seemed destined for their first ever victory over New Zealand, especially when Jonathan Sexton had a penalty to put eight points between them six minutes from the end of a pulsating contest.
To the horror of the capacity crowd, emotionally drained at that stage, Sexton’s kick from the right on the 22 went inches the wrong side of the near post.
“If that had gone over then it was game over,” admitted the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw. “But when he missed there was a sense of lift in the boys; there was still a chance.” It was an opportunity that the New Zealanders did not waste.
The clock ticked to the 80th minute and they were still inside their own half, five points adrift. And yet the visitors conjured an equalising try and then a re-taken conversion from the left touchline to snatch victory and complete the most remarkable and most successful season with a 14th straight win – in the process denying Ireland the place in the history books which their performance deserved.
“To be a minute away from history and the ball in your hands and not finish it off is devastating,” said Joe Schmidt, the New Zealander who was in charge of Ireland for only the third time.
Only New Zealand could do what New Zealand then did under such intense pressure. They went from their own 10-metre line and ran the ball through a succession of hands before Aaron Cruden went wide on the left to replacement hooker Dane Coles, who popped the ball wide to Ryan Crotty – and the 25-year old, who only made his debut in August, went over in the left corner.
Television match official Graham Hughes was consulted to adjudicate on a possible forward pass by Coles and when that went in New Zealand’s favour there was still the small matter of landing the conversion to seal victory.
Cruden, who had landed three from four prior to that, took an age addressing the ball, prompting a few Irish backs to run at him, and when his kick skewed across goal at the last moment, referee Nigel Owens had no hesitation in ordering it to be retaken.
Thus, after 1,120 minutes or more of a rugby season, Cruden had one final chance to secure history. The kick was on target from the moment it left his right boot and team-mates were on top of him by the time it safely cleared the crossbar.
The Irish sank to their knees. They had fallen the same way as the other 13 sides the All Blacks have faced this season but none had endured such a level of heartbreak, none had gone 108 years trying to get a first ever win and none had gone this close.
No Irish side – or, indeed, many others – had torn the All Blacks to shreds as Paul O’Connell’s men did in the opening quarter.
The Irish tackling, the execution of their passing and running, was of the highest possible order and it was quickly rewarded on the scoreboard.
A succession of phases saw scrum-half Conor Murray squeeze over after four minutes and then seven minutes later Ireland repeated the dose, recycling at pace in tight confines for hooker Rory Best to cross the line.
Even Best’s early loss with a broken arm, which will rule him out of Ulster’s remaining Heineken Cup games, did not disrupt a rampant Ireland side and full-back Rob Kearney pounced when his opposite number Israel Dagg dithered and with only No 8 Kieran Read at home minding the house, Kearney raced down the left from inside his own half to score in the left corner to make it 19-0.
Julian Savea cut a good line for a New Zealand try after 26 minutes but another Sexton kick left Ireland 22-7 ahead at the break.
New Zealand did not panic and forced Ireland to defend deep. Cruden pulled back a penalty and then a series of trademark pick-and-go moves ended with replacement prop Ben Franks getting over after 65 minutes. Cruden converted from the left – almost exactly from the spot where he would later so dramatically snatch the game.
Ireland managed to stem the flow but the importance of Sexton’s agonising penalty miss late on was incalculable. The All Blacks were given a lifeline. They needed no more.
Ireland: Tries Murray, Best, Kearney; Conversions Sexton 2; Penalty Sexton. New Zealand: Tries Savea, B Franks, Crotty; Conversions Cruden 3; Penalty Cruden.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, B O’Driscoll (L Fitzgerald 53), G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan 76), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 69), R Best (S Cronin 15), M Ross (D Fitzpatrick 65); D Toner (M McCarthy 65), P O’Connell (capt); P O’Mahony (K McLaughlin 57), S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
New Zealand: I Dagg (R Crotty 53); C Jane (B Barrett 76), B Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; A Cruden, A Smith; W Crockett (B Franks 61), A Hore (D Coles 43), C Faumuina (O Franks 57); B Retallick, S Whitelock; S Luatua (L Messam 57), R McCaw (capt), K Read.
Referee: N Owens (WRU).
2013 perfection: All Blacks’ results
June France (h) W 23-13
June France (h) W 30-0
June France (h) W 24-9
Aug Australia (a) W 47-29
Aug Australia (h) W 27-16
Sept Argentina (h) W 28-13
Sept S Africa (h) W 29-15
Sept Argentina (a) W 33-15
Oct S Africa (a) W 38-27
Oct Australia (h) W 41-33
Nov Japan (a) W 54-6
Nov France (a) W 26-19
Nov England (a) W 30-22
Nov Ireland (a) W 24-22