For a time, it seemed this game would skate to the top of them all as Ireland came from 31-11 down after 56 minutes to pin the Baby Blacks back on the ropes with 11 phases in the final play of the night.
A try would have been enough to send Ireland through to the semi-finals for the first time but they just could not complete the remarkable recovery job, and New Zealand held on for a victory which was summed up by their skipper Ardie Savea afterwards.
“I think the boys are just relieved,” said the younger brother of All-Black Julian. In the end, England advance by virtue of having scored 23 tries to Ireland’s 10 in the pool games — 17 of which came last night in a 109-0 drubbing of the hapless USA.
Ireland traded on parity until try scorer Thomas Farrell was binned just before the break and the Baby Blacks then turned an interval lead of 14-11 into 26-11 by the 48th minute.
“I was proud of my team. I thought they were fantastic,” said Ruddock.
“The yellow card was probably a defining moment. You can’t really give the All Blacks that sort of time and space when a man down,” he added.
The hard-working Dan Leavy got Ireland back in the game towards the end of the third quarter when he finished a good move involving Steve Crosbie and Rory Scholes.
It got better for Ireland with over 10 minutes remaining when replacement prop Edward Byrne buried his way over after incessant Irish pressure.
Rory Scannell’s conversion left it 31-23 and he landed his third penalty to leave just a try between them less then 10 minutes to play. A draw would have sent both teams through. But Ireland just couldn’t conjure a fourth try.
Earlier, Ireland traded on parity for most of the opening half, gaining an upper hand in the scrum and New Zealand were fortunate not to have a man binned for persistent scrum infringements. But New Zealand always looked dangerous with ball in hand. They were keen to go wide quickly but Ireland kept it tight and drove it through the middle with the excellent handling skills witnessed against Australia and Fiji again in evidence.
Rory Scannell, taking over the kicking duties from the injured Tom Daly, twice traded penalties with Simon Hickey to leave the sides deadlocked at 6-6 after half an hour.
Ireland paid the price as they lost a scrum and a lineout and turnover ended with lock Patrick Tuipulotu scoring in the left corner after great work from skipper Ardie and wing Lolagi Visinia.
But the Irish response was excellent with Thomas Farrell pouncing on a loose pass from Hickey to sprint over in the right corner after 34 minutes.
The Kiwis regained the lead with another Hickey penalty but the key moment was the binning of Farrell for an infringement on scrum-half Tayler Adams just before the break.
With next season’s seedings being decided by where Ireland finish, Ruddock now wants to build on the work of the three pool matches next week.
Scorers for New Zealand: Tries: Faiva (2), Tuipulotu, Visinia.Con: Hickey. Pens: Hickey (3)
Scorers for Ireland:Tries: Farrell, Leavy, E Byrne. Con: Scannell. Pens: Scannell (3).
IRELAND: D Leader (Connacht); A Byrne (Leinster), T Farrell (Leinster), R Scannell (Munster), R Scholes (Ulster); S Crosbie (Leinster), L McGrath (Leinster); P Dooley (Leinster), G McGuigan (Newcastle Falcons), C Taylor (Ulster); G Thornubury (Leinster), J Donnan (Ulster); D Leavy (Leinster), J van der Flier (Leinster), C Joyce (Ulster). Replacements: D Sweetnam (Munster) for Byrne (34), B Byrne (Leinster) for McGuigan (49), E Byrne (Leinster) for Dooley (49), P Timmins (Leinster) for Thornbury (49), R Murphy (Munster) for Joyce (67), M Roche (Connacht) for Crosbie (67), D Shanahan (Leinster) for McGrath (76), A Boland (Connacht) for Taylor (79).
NEW ZEALAND: J Webber; P Latu, J Emery, M Collins, L Visinia; S Hickey, T Adams; D Brighouse, E Faiva, B Wiggins; P Tuipulotu, C Vui; J Manihera, A Sevea, J Edwards.
Replacements: S Mafileo for Wiggins (h-t), N Grogan for Brighouse (63), H May for Manihera (67), D Brighouse for Latu (71), S Scrafton for Vui (71),
Referee: Ian Davies (Wales)