5/11/16 represents a historic date – it is the date Ireland beat the mighty All Blacks for the very first time.
Even now, three days on, it’s hard to truly believe – did it really happen? It did. Yet before last Saturday’s clash, Irish expectations were understandably low. Could Ireland really beat a side going for their 19th successive test win – a side that finished with a maximum 30 points from their 6 games in the recent Rugby Championship? And do so for the first time? All known logic would say no – yet here we are, with Ireland claiming a famous 40 – 29 victory over the All Blacks in front of a sell-out crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field, and what a victory it was.
As the match was nearing its start, New Zealand prepared to do their iconic Haka – their traditional war dance – to signal their ferocious intent. Ireland, like every other test playing nation, usually line up in a parallel time adjacent to the haka to ‘accept’ the New Zealander’s challenge. Ireland, however, lined up in a figure 8 formation to honour the recently deceased Munster and Ireland legend, Anthony Foley who wore the number eight shirt. It was an emotional start to what promised to be a captivating game.
Ireland started brightly with the boot of Sexton ensuring a 3-0 lead inside the opening minutes, yet it was New Zealand through George Moala, who profited from a barnstorming run straight through the heart of the Irish defence to score the first try.
The visitors were not to be left in their wake, though, and when Jordi Murphy barraged over the line with the aid of a driving maul, Ireland re-established their lead. 10-5.
Ireland were hassling and harrying New Zealand relentlessly and their endeavours were rewarded further when Cj Stander forced his way over the line following a smart, decisive run through the All Blacks defence by Rob Kearney. The conversion was missed but shortly after Sexton and Beauden Barrett would exchange penalties leaving the score Ireland 18 – 8 New Zealand with only 24 minutes gone.
How often have we seen the mercurial All Blacks score crucial tries right before half-time to stop the momentum of their opponents? Just ask Australia, South Africa and Argentina what that’s like. Yet, Ireland were here to create their own narrative and when Conor Murray cheekily took advantage of Aaron Smith’s poor defensive awareness, Ireland would go on to score their third try of the first half whilst securing a half time lead of 25-8.
Thoughts immediately centred on the 2013 fixture between the sides in Dublin. Ireland held a handsome lead at half-time before succumbing to a last minute try, eventually losing 24-22 in a thriller. Could Ireland right the wrongs of that devastating defeat? Or would New Zealand produce their trademark final 20 minute burst to blow away the opposition as they so often do?
Ireland kept New Zealand’s greater zeal at bay in the opening exchanges through excellent defensive resoluteness and great line speed – no doubt Andy Farrell is leaving his print on the side. Yet, even with New Zealand showing signs of early second-half recovery, it was Ireland who mauled their way inches short of the try-line only for Murray to spread the ball wide to Simon Zebo who ran in uncontested to score Ireland’s fourth try of the day.
30 points to 8 over the back to back world champions. Yet, as with all great sides, New Zealand showed their true class for a frankly frightening 10 minute spell that resulted in 3 consecutive tries. First it was Dan Coles who broke an Irish tackle only to attempt an audacious offload to Perenara who ran in under the posts. 30-15. Then Ben Smith produced a simply magnificent finish to ground the ball one-handed in the corner, despite relentless pressure from two chasing Irish defenders. 30-22. When young sensation Scott Barrett charged through the seemingly tiring Irish line to score the All Blacks 4th try and 3rd in a devastating 10 minute spell, the score suddenly became 33-29 whereas it stood 30 – 8 just ten minutes prior.
Ireland had just born direct witness to what marks the All Blacks as a legendary side. Wave after wave of All Black pressure, offloading, intricate plays and clinical decision-making had taxed Ireland’s defence to the brink of collapse.
15 minutes remained – could Ireland hold on, or would New Zealand break green hearts yet again? Neither, as Ireland weren’t content to hold on, they pushed on heroically and when Robbie Henshaw crossed the line following a superb tackle by Conor Murray on Julian Savea which resulted in an Irish 5-metre scrum – Ireland led 40-29 with 3 minutes remaining.
Try as they might, this game was done. Even the All Blacks weren’t overcoming this. And overcome they didn’t. New Zealand were defeated and Ireland could now finally say they’ve beaten rugby’s best, and perhaps, rugby’s greatest ever side.
Reflecting on the game in New Zealand’s post-match press conference, coach Steve Hansen was in no doubt as to who was the deserving winners; “We were just beaten by a better side on the day. That happens when you play good sides. And we’ve been saying for quite some time they’re a good team”
Hansen and his All Black charges will be smarting after this defeat, and when the sides meet again in Dublin on November 19th, New Zealand will be looking for redemption whilst Ireland will be looking to beat the best Rugby Union side twice in a row.