They think it's all over: Moment that changed history as Ireland victory snatched by All Blacks
Published 25/11/2013 | 10:30
Call it brave, call it bold. At moments it was brilliant, too. But in the end – the very end – it just wasn't enough. Ireland were agonisingly close to a first-ever win against the All Blacks but their failure to add to a 22-7 interval lead cost them dearly.
The final kick of the match – a twice-taken conversion – saw the Kiwis shade the verdict and create history by becoming the first side in international rugby since the advent of professionalism to play and win 14 Test matches in a calendar year.
Had Jonny Sexton kicked a 74th minute penalty, that would have opened up an eight-point lead. He didn't and it cost Ireland dearly with the All Blacks knowing a converted try would see them home.
It had called for an all-out approach from the start and Ireland delivered that. From the first whistle there was a fire, a passion, a pride about them. But there was more; there was pattern, design and skill in everything they did in a blistering opening.
They were awarded the first penalty when the All Blacks were penalised at a ruck and when Jonny Sexton kicked to touch in the guests' 22 they won the opening line-out, too, with Rory Best finding captain Paul O'Connell whose tap off the top was directed into the hands of scrum-half Conor Murray.
They were playing like men possessed – first to everything. A scrum 16 metres from the New Zealand line was won and in the passage which followed Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip kept the momentum going. The Irish pressure was superb and it yielded the game's first try in the fifth minute when Murray had the strength to break the tackles of Wyatt Crockett and Brodie Retallick and force the ball down over the line.
The Aviva Stadium erupted in acclamation and again when Sexton added the extras. But even that roared was surpassed four minutes later when Best bagged Ireland's second try. How richly he deserved it, for it was his spot-on line-out throw to the front which began the passage he was to finish. It was a magnificent score, with a crucial Murray pick-up when it seemed it might have broken down and there was the hooker.
Again Sexton was on target with the conversion and with 11 minutes on the clock Ireland had a 14-0 lead. The unfortunate Best exited after breaking his right arm and his replacement, Sean Cronin, was instantly into action, required to throw into a line-out in the Irish 22. Leinster colleague Devin Toner won that and the shell-shocked world champions were forced to retreat empty-handed.
And moments later they were floored again when full-back Israel Dagg was unable to hold a pass from Aaron Cruden. At once Dagg's Irish counterpart, Rob Kearney, pounced on the error and realising that the All Blacks had committed everybody to attack, he began the long run for home. His lungs must have been bursting, but roared on by the capacity crowd he kept going all the way to the guests' line. With 17 minutes on the clock, unbelievably Ireland led 19-0. Sexton's conversion attempt came back off a post.
Of course, everybody in the stadium expected a backlash and the All Blacks responded with a try by Julian Savea seven minutes later. Ben Smith and Aaron Smith played key parts, but it was the fact that Aaron Cruden's grubber sat up perfectly that enabled the left-winger to score. Cruden converted and we wondered if that was the start of the tide turning?
No. Ireland kept coming. O'Connell (pictured) dipped the shoulder into Richie McCaw and when Ireland won another line-out after Cronin picked out Toner, with Healy, Mike Ross, Brian O'Driscoll, Sean O'Brien, O'Connell, Murray and Toner in turn driving forward.
"Ireland, Ireland." was the cry and when the under-pressure Kiwis coughed up another penalty in the 32nd minute, Sexton put that between the sticks, too, making it 22-7.
Trailing by 15 points at the break, it was obvious that the All Blacks would throw everything into that record bid. They did, but they found the Irish no less determined. Even when Dagg got close after a spell of pressure which lasted almost 10 minutes, referee Nigel Owens was unable to award a try following consultation with TMO Graham Hughes.
The pressure finally yielded points when Cruden landed a 53rd minute goal, whereupon Dagg made way for Ryan Crotty. Ireland responded by withdrawing O'Driscoll and introducing Luke Fitzgerald.
Ireland's reaction was to raise it again going into the final quarter and when Kearney was taken in the air by Kieran Read, the resultant penalty saw the All Blacks driven back out of the home 22.
But the black waves continued and in the 65th minute, following further outstanding Irish tackling, the inevitable happened when replacement loose-head Ben Franks forced his way through for a try converted by Cruden,making it a five-point game at 22-17 with 15 minutes remaining.
How much had Ireland left in the tank? One feared they were close to exhaustion following so Herculean a physical and mental effort.
'The Fields of Athenry' boomed out from the stands as the crowd tried to lift those on the pitch. Ten minutes to go, five points the differential. 'Ireland, Ireland. Ireland' was the response as the Irish skipper won a line-out deep in the All Blacks' 22 and when referee Owens raised his arm to signal a penalty we dared to hope that might prove crucial. Alas, Sexton missed with his pot at the posts. Crucial, crucial miscue.
The hosts were being driven by a wall of noise and the knowledge that their place in history was less than a minute away. Into added time.
And then Crotty scored, with the TMO confirming the try despite the crowd's protestations that there had been a forward pass. A Cruden conversion from four metres in would give the Kiwis that record 14th win. He missed but Ireland had charged too early. The re-take sailed between the posts making it 24-22.
A first Irish victory over the All Blacks awaits, but they will never fail by a more slender margin or after a more heroic performance.