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Ireland 40 New Zealand 29: Ireland's skill and courage rocked the All Blacks, then they brilliantly broke them

By Neil Francis

It was an intensely irrational reality. Ireland were awarded a kickable penalty with less than two minutes to go.

Mathematically, the game could not end in a draw and, with a margin of 11 points, New Zealand would need two converted tries to win. The match was over - the contest was over well before that and yet we still refused to believe.

We had been nourished on an unpalatable diet of heartbreak and hidings over the last 111 years and so when the final whistle blew it was a surreal moment.

It was almost as if we needed the imprimatur of someone in high office to officially stamp a deed of victory. This was uncommon territory. What do we do?

Savour the victory first and foremost! Then in the giddy aftermath reflect on the scale of it. It is a truly incredible performance. The margin of victory while satisfying is not the story here, it is the number of points registered against the best team in the world.

New Zealand conceded five tries in their entire Rugby Championship campaign of six matches. What happened in Chicago requires an inquest from the All Black management. They won't find any easy answers - this was an authentic performance from their opponents - all tries scored by the Irish were merited, all tries scored by the All Blacks were hard-earned.

For Ireland, this performance was a revelation of character. It was an 80-minute essay in concentration, invention and near-perfect execution. A grim restatement of intent based on willingly giving sweat and blood, grey matter and bone marrow. It was Ireland's finest hour. The moulding of character driven by loss and bitter loss.

Ireland, aware of the gravity of the occasion and acutely aware of the grievous loss in 2013, put together the building blocks of success by learning from that defeat in Dublin. Experience is the chance to do better the next time and this was a breakthrough performance because Ireland lasted for the full 80 minutes. More crucially, they continued to play in the second half and do the things which had worked in the first half.

In the dressing room that thought of the bard must have been swirling in the heads of the entire squad: "We know what we are but know not what we may be." Only the team dared to dream, to think a victory was possible. They made sure with a firmness of ambition which has taken this side a step further. Nothing would distract them.

I thought the fiddle 'playing' Ireland's Call (a disgrace), the eight and the Jordi Murphy injury may have taken something out of their focus but Ireland's concentration remained steadfast and was maintained to the end.

The moment of the match came about in the 74th minute.

As New Zealand forlornly chased the game, Andrew Trimble made a 'signed in blood' tackle on Liam Squire. It shook the Kiwi to the core and his pass went forward to Dane Coles.

From that scrum the ball got to Simon Zebo, who chipped the ball long and the chase was on. Malakai Fekitoa got to it first but was overwhelmed by Zebo and Robbie Henshaw. He flipped a loose ball to Julian Savea, who was swarmed by Conor Murray, Rob Kearney and Trimble.

Savea, flustered and agitated by having to deal with work that wasn't in his job description, was hassled, hounded and harried by Murray principally who had run 75 metres from the feed into the scrum in the 75th minute of a game of soul-sapping intensity. What a moment! You didn't need to be Freud to interpret the body language. Savea got barrelled into touch in goal and Ireland scored through Henshaw off the scrum.

It is rare to see New Zealand in such psychological distress - wonderful too!

As a nation, we discovered how much fun it was to do the impossible if you can devote yourself to an idea. A memorable out-performance crafted quite simply by the best coach in the world.

Joe Schmidt is not just a mere coach he is now deemed a quality. His next impossible task is to joust with that most formidable foe in Irish sport - expectation!

Belfast Telegraph


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