Ireland produced an epic performance in Dublin on Saturday as they beat world champions New Zealand for the first time on home soil in an enthralling contest between the two best sides in the world.
Two years on from a historic first win over the All Blacks in 111 years when Joe Schmidt’s men won in Chicago, the Irish came up trumps again as they kept the number-one side tryless with Jacob Stockdale’s 48th-minute try and 11 points from Johnny Sexton seeing them home as New Zealand could only muster three penalties from the boot of Beauden Barrett.
The electricity in the stadium was evident from the start of Amhrán na bhFiann, through the All Blacks’ haka and into game itself, the atmosphere doubtless contributing to a frenetic first half which Ireland bossed for long periods.
It was as good a 40 minutes of controlled, front-foot rugby as Schmidt’s team has produced as the Irish pack hit the ground running from the moment the recalled Devin Toner collected Beauden Barrett’s deep kick-off.
Toner’s first-half performance was impeccable as both the lineout leader, carrier and tackler and he was equalled by each of his forwards as Ireland were pinpoint accurate at the breakdown and excellent in the set-piece, forcing the All Blacks into a succession of penalty concessions.
Fly-half Johnny Sexton guided his team upfield after a defensive set in the Irish 22 that had kept the world champions at bay through 12 phases before CJ Stander clamped down over the ball and earned a fifth-minute penalty that had the stadium shaking in its appreciation.
Five minutes later and the home side’s first entry into the opposition 22 brought the first points of the game from a Sexton penalty as another All Black strayed offside.
New Zealand took seven minutes to draw level after Rory Best lost the ball in contact and a swift counter left Stockdale isolated and holding on, Barrett slotting the penalty.
Yet while the scoring was tit for tat, Barrett cancelling out another Sexton penalty courtesy of a drop goal as his side enjoyed a penalty advantage, it was Ireland who looked in control and they would twice get over the New Zealand tryline only for Stander to be held up and Rob Kearney to lose control before grounding.
It was helter skelter stuff and the All Blacks were not looking comfortable in this fevered atmosphere, referee Wayne Barnes warning their captain Kieran Read that his side were in yellow-card territory as the penalty count rose to eight conceded by the visitors with two minutes left in the opening half. It was an opportunity Sexton did not pass up and Ireland went in at the break 9-6 to the good.
The frantic pace continued after the break, as New Zealand with nine penalties conceded and 12 missed tackles to their name from the first half, looked more composed from the restart. They nearly had their breakthrough on 43 minutes when Stockdale, having gathered the ball in the backfield, had his clearing kick charged down by Read. The Ireland wing’s life must have flashed before him as the enormity of his error sank in but with a clear run to the tryline, Read failed to gather the loose ball and knocked on. Ireland, and Stockdale, were off the hook and the wing soon had a chance to make amends.
With space opening up, Sexton received the ball in midfield and sent a clever reverse pass back to Bundee Aki who flung the ball out wide to Stockdale. Undaunted by his previous error, he went once again for the chip and this time had only scrum-half Aaron Smith to clear. Job done but the Ulsterman still had to win the foot-race and he was too quick even for the whippet-like Smith. Try scored, his 12th in 14 Ireland appearances and nothing that went before will have felt so good as this score.
Sexton converted from wide out on the left and Ireland were 16-6 up with 32 minutes to go. There was too much of this game left to think about hanging on but Ireland were starting to tire from their monumental effort and New Zealand were gathering momentum.
There were key interceptions inside the home 22, first from the hugely impressive Peter O’Mahony as Retallick kicked through for Rieko Ioane and then when Beauden Barrett offloaded straight to Rob Kearney. But Ireland were struggling to hold onto the ball as mistakes crept in to their game. Kearney took out Ioane in the air and was lucky to escape without a card, but when Sexton was penalised for a high tackle on replacement Richie Mo'unga, opposing fly-half Barrett nailed the penalty from the 10m line to make it 16-9 with 12 minutes to go.
If ever there was a time for Ireland to summon a second wind it was now and that they did. An All Black knock-on on halfway and from the scrum on the right-hand side, Ireland got the ball to Stockdale whose pace and then kick ahead gained crucial metres to get the home side into the opposition 22.
The ball was in the right end of the field as far as Ireland was concerned but the nerves did not relent as a five-metre lineout was stolen by Retallick. This was epic stuff once more as the clock ticked towards 80 minutes.
Sexton succumbed to cramp to be replaced by Joey Carbery with less than four minutes remaining as Ireland desperately kept the All Blacks inside their own half. The noise levels somehow increased further as New Zealand tried to break the siege and there was some respite when Jack Goodhue elected to chip and charge and Ireland regained possession on halfway with two minutes left on the clock.
There was still time for New Zealand and with 30 second remaining they moved into Irish territory. Again the tackles were desperate but mighty but the world champions were not beaten and they edged into the 22 with regulation time up. The Fields of Athenry got an impassioned airing and it was interrupted in the best possible fashion from an Irish point of view as Retallick dropped a short pass. The roar was deafening as players in green and black sank to the floor but victory was Ireland’s and the Aviva was in raptures.
IRELAND: R Kearney (J Larmour, 66); K Earls, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery, 76), K Marmion (L McGrath, 58); C Healy (J McGrath, 51), R Best - captain (S Cronin, 64), T Furlong (A Porter, 64); D Toner (I Henderson, 61), J Ryan; P O'Mahony (J Murphy, 63), J van der Flier, CJ Stander.
NEW ZEALAND: D McKenzie (R Mo'unga, 56); B Smith, J Goodhue, R Crotty (A Lienert-Brown, 61), R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Perenara, 58); K Tu'inukuafe (Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 47), C Taylor (D Coles, 47), O Franks (N Laulala, 47); B Retallick, S Whitelock; L Squire (S Barrett, 31), A Savea (M Todd, 74) , K Read - captain.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).