Ireland will have to wait another four years for a crack at a first World Cup semi-final appearance after Joe Schmidt’s tenure as head coach came to an end with a comprehensive defeat to the world champions on Saturday.
It was a deeply disappointing conclusion to a fitful World Cup campaign in Japan, that also signalled captain Rory Best’s retirement at the age of 37 as the All Blacks moved a step closer to a hat-trick of consecutive titles with a masterclass of instinctive and clinical rugby that denied Ireland the chance to even land a punch.
Steve Hansen’s side now face an intriguing semi-final clash with England in Yokohama next Saturday as he Ireland squad heads for home, no doubt with a feeling that they have not managed to recapture the golden form of 2018 that had brought a Grand Slam, a series victory in Australia and a barnstorming victory over New Zealand.
This performance, 11 months on paled in comparison, the All Blacks putting this game beyond Schmidt’s side inside the opening 20 minutes as scrum-half Aaron Smith scored two tries before Ireland had even got out of first gear.
They were 17-0 down and on the back foot with an hour remaining and it was an uphill battle from that position, which worsened when Beauden Barrett scored off turnover ball with a breakaway try on 32 minutes.
Ireland were sloppy in possession, the error count rising as New Zealand capitalised and although there was a brief rally before half-time with some sustained pressure on the All Blacks’ five-metre line, it was undone by a ruck penalty against Peter O’Mahony that sent his side into the interval trailing 22-0.
Four second-half tries from hooker Codie Taylor, replacement forward Matt Todd, wing George Bridge and sub Jordie Barrett confirmed the All Blacks' dominance but Ireland avoided a whitewash with some stubborn if belated resistance as Robbie Henshaw scored under the posts, converted by Joey Carbery and a penalty try after some fight from the forwards.
Henshaw’s poor knock-on on first-phase ball off a lineout under minimal pressure set the tone for an error-ridden night for the Irish.
The ever-clinical All Blacks ground straight upfield, and scrum-half Smith sniped home with ease.
Sexton went for broke trying to punt a halfway line penalty to the corner, only for Mo’unga to leap acrobatically and tap the ball back into play.
New Zealand took another gift, gleefully racing back on the attack – with Sevu Reece drifting off his wing to ghost into acres of space in the outside centre channel.
George Bridge was hauled down just shy of the line, but again Smith wriggled home.
Another poor Irish knock-on in contact spoiled the latest promising platform, and Schmidt’s rattled men started to blink.
Ireland came again, but Sexton saw the ball dislodged cheaply attempting to shift onto Kearney. Mo’unga fly-hacked on, Beauden Barrett raced clear of all the cover – and dotted down the third score, just past the half-hour.
Ireland found time to grind into the All Blacks’ 22 at the death of the half, desperately flailing to put points on the board.
But just when a first score of the match inched into sight, Peter O’Mahony hit a ruck shoulder-first, conceding a penalty and ending the half.
Nothing changed after the interval, New Zealand quickly onto the front foot and maximising that dominance.
Kieran Read’s pop off the ground handed hooker Taylor a walk-in for the fourth try, and replacement Todd thundered home just past the hour after a fine crossfield kick set Reece on the run.
Ireland rallied once a raft of replacements had joined the fray, with Henshaw bagging a try, at the second attempt.
The Leinster star had knocked on moments earlier when attempting to dot down for a try, but redeemed himself slightly by powering over from a five-metre scrum.
New Zealand hit back without delay, Bridge crossing in a flash after Ardie Savea fed Dane Coles and the replacement hooker popped on to the young winger.
Ireland scored again with a penalty try when Todd was sin-binned for shoulder-charging the whitewash-bound CJ Stander.
Jordie Barrett grabbed the last word however, crossing in the right corner. New Zealand wrestled the last laugh at the last two World Cups, and could so easily do the same again in Japan.
R Kearney (J Larmour, 52); K Earls, G Ringrose (J Larmour, 6-9), R Henshaw (J Larmour, 21-26), J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery, 63), C Murray (L McGrath, 74); C Healy (D Kilcoyne, 49), R Best - captain (N Scannell, 63), T Furlong (A Porter, 60); I Henderson (T Beirne, 49), James Ryan; P O’Mahony (R Ruddock, 57), J van der Flier, CJ Stander.
B Barrett; S Reece (J Barrett, 63), J Goodhue (S B Williams, 52), A Lienert-Brown, G Bridge; R Mo'unga, A Smith (TJ Perenara, 60); J Moody (O Tuungafasi, 49), C Taylor (D Coles, 60), N Laulala (A Ta'avao, 49); B Retallick (M Todd, 57), S Whitelock; A Savea, S Cane (S Barrett, h-t), K Read - captain.
Yellow Card: M Todd 76
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)