There couldn’t even be any solace in the knowledge that Ireland’s high octane, highly committed and highly skilled performance – yielding a jaw-dropping triple whammy of tries in the first 18 minutes – had forced the All Blacks to conjure a remarkable comeback win, their decisive third try coming a minute and 24 seconds after the match clock had turned red.
Leading 22-17, Johnny Sexton had fractionally missed a 74th minute penalty to give Ireland a two-score lead. Even then, to a crescendo of support, Ireland were recycling the ball with 27 seconds of time left, whereupon Nigel Owens penalised Jack McGrath for going off his feet; only the fifth full penalty against Ireland.
There was almost a grim inevitability about the way the All Blacks calmly went through the phases before replacement hooker Dane Coles took Aaron Cruden’s long pass and offloaded out of the tackle for replacement fullback Ryan Crotty to score. That drew the sides level, a premature Irish charge affording Cruden the chance to atone for his initially wayward conversion and ensure the All Blacks of an historic, 14th win in 14 tests this year by 24-22. (They could also thank Kieran Read for cornerflagging Rob Kearney for his try, as Sexton hit the post with the conversion from wide out.)
So, one kick from the biggest win in Irish rugby history, and then just two or three rucks away from immortality. Instead, it probably goes down as Ireland’s most heartbreaking defeat, certainly right up there with Michael Lynagh’s match-winning try at the death in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final on the same ground.
Tempered the recession
Damn and blast it, Irish rugby and the country could have done with it. It might even have tempered the recession, for a little while anyway, albeit after a few additional sick notes today. This was closer than any of the previous 27 attempts, including the draw, but after it you really do wonder if Ireland can ever beat these All Blacks.
“Yeah, it’s certainly up there,” said a crestfallen Joe Schmidt when asked if this was the most disappointing defeat of his career. “To be honest I don’t think it’s about me, I think it’s about the team and for me the disappointment is shared by the players. It’s fairly heavy disappointment. Obviously as a coach you’re gutted but the amount of effort they expended out there was about the maximum you could ask of them. Not to get a result that was in our hands is pretty devastating.”
Schmidt admitted that the fatigue caused by such a huge effort may have taken its toll, as did an injury list which saw Rory Best depart early with a suspected broken radius bone in his right arm, and Brian O’Driscoll before the hour with suspected concussion. For O’Driscoll this meant yet more unfinished business and unfinished for good now. Sexton too, almost inevitably, didn’t quite see out the 80, and he was going to be called ashore with a tightened hamstring even before he missed that penalty.
Winning, much like rugby itself, is in the New Zealand DNA, less so the Irish DNA. Maybe a seed of doubt was sewn in Irish minds while also giving the All Blacks’ a lifeline when Sexton missed that penalty. The day before, the New Zealand rugby league team had drawn level with the game’s last play against England at Wembley in the Rugby League World Cup semi-final to win the game with the last conversion. Uncanny.