With the All Blacks also struggling at the lineout, the Irish forwards made the most of their opportunity and turned a 5-3 deficit into a 15-5 lead while the Kiwi loosehead prop was n the sin bin, Jordi Murphy translating a clever decision to maul the undermanned All Blacks pack from short range into five points, converted by Johnny Sexton and then CJ Stander taking advantage of a Rob Kearney linebreak to win a one-on-one collision with Jerome Kaino and claim Ireland’s second try.
With the clock ticking towards half-time, Ireland’s 18-8 lead was not looking healthy enough against an All Blacks side renowned for their strong second-half performances, aided by a power-packed bench of replacements.
Joe Schmidt’s side needed more of a cushion and they got it through scrum-half Conor Murray. Johnny Sexton had caused some panic with a high ball into the left corner that New Zealand failed to gather, the high bounce gathered by Murray.
Sexton carried into contact and from the resulting ruck, it was the scrum-half who emerged in the clear, having jinked his way out of trouble, past opposite number Aaron Smith to race over the line, Sexton getting up after some treatment to add the conversion and give Ireland a 25-8 half-time lead.
They would need every one of those precious points.
Begins Simon Zebo, putting in his best performance in an Ireland jersey, had stretched his team’s advantage to 30-8 with a 46th minute try but Sexton missed the touchline conversion and New Zealand started to up the tempo and go through the gears.
They had replaced the ineffective Aaron Smith and made a change at lock just before Zebo’s try and both substitutes would spearhead the world champions’ charge.
First it was scrum-half TJ Perenara, then starting full-back Ben Smith before debutant second row Scott Barrett piled over for a third All Blacks try in a dozen minutes, all converted by the lock’s big brother Beauden Barrett.
All of a sudden, as is so often the way with this team for the ages, New Zealand had changed the momentum of the game in short order, narrowing the gap to just four points and looking set to break Irish hearts once more in the final quarter.
It sounds innocuous enough but having just taken a huge chunk out of Ireland’s lead and with their tails up in a four-point game, you feared New Zealand were on the verge of running riot.
Yet this moment gave the huge Irish contingent in the 62,300 crowd at Soldier Field an inkling that things might not quite be running to the All Blacks’ script. A moment of confusion in the Irish lineout as they believed they were setting for a New Zealand throw but referee Mathieu Raynal allows a quick pass from touch deep in their own half.
Ireland once more fall onto the back foot as the world champions move the ball quickly through hands, except the normally reliable Julian Savea out on the left wing cannot collect.
The chance for a devastating and powerful sprint down the line is fumbled and perhaps Ireland have weathered the storm.
Ireland had paid the price for conservatism in 2013 when they sat back and tried to defend their lead against the All Blacks in Dublin. They were not going to make the same mistake in Chicago.
Deep in their own half, an excellent pass from Jared Payne found Zebo, the left wing deploying his natural instincts to blast the ball upfield rather than find an easy touch.
Cleverly he targeted replacement Ardie Savea, a flanker filling in at left wing in a rejigged backline with centre Moala replaced by a prop, the last remaining bench warmer. Savea had his brother Julian in support and it seemed as if the right wing would do the sensible thing and clear his lines.
Instead, under pressure from the chasing Murray, he was turned tail and was driven into touch behind the tryline. Five-metre scrum Ireland.
What happened next was a play Ireland had kept up their sleeve since the summer tour to South Africa but had been unable to execute,
Jamie Heaslip springing off the base of the scrum, feeding a hard-running Robbie Henshaw on the inside to charge over for their fifth try of the match. Converted y debutant Joey Carbery, it was game over.