Ireland 22 New Zealand 24
IT will go down as yet another Irish defeat to the All Blacks, the latest entry in a 108-year catalogue of almost total misery.
But somehow this felt different.
There have been some heroic failures in the past, most recently in Christchurch in June 2012, and this bore similarities of another, right down to the relentless willpower and never-say-die spirit of the world-champion New Zealanders.
Yet they proved once again you need more than an 80-minute performance to knock them off their perch and this loss, the 27th in 28 meetings with the men in black dating back to 1905 — the anomaly being that 1973 draw at Lansdowne Road — took frustration and disappointment to a whole new level.
This was Ireland’s game to win, they lead 19-0 after an incredible first 20 minutes of breathtaking, high-octane rugby that produced three tries, and they found more than one way to lose it.
That may sound harsh on team who gave everything they had and only succumbed to a try scored after 81 minutes and 32 seconds and a re-taken conversion. But go back a mere two minutes and Joe Schmidt’s team were encamped deep in the New Zealand half and in possession of the ball, 34 seconds from glory and in the process stopping the world’s best team from becoming the first Test nation to go a calendar year without defeat. What happens next? Mike McCarthy goes into contact and in the ensuing ruck, an Ireland forward goes off his feet and concedes a penalty. It was just their fifth of the game in a genuinely heroic defensive effort, but one that turned the ball over to a team that not only thinks on its feet but does not need a second invitation to punish mistakes.
And from 60 metres out, the All Blacks instinctively went through their gears and manoeuvred substitute outside back Ryan Crotty into the left-hand corner to tie the game at 22-22.
Go back nine minutes from the subsequent conversion by Aaron Cruden, re-taken because Ireland players had encroached on the kicker before he had made a forward movement, and his opposite number Johnny Sexton was hovering over a teed-up ball. It was a penalty that if successful would have given Ireland an eight-point lead that both All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and captain Richie McCaw admitted afterwards would have spelled game over.
Sexton, who had also missed the conversion of Rob Kearney’s 18th minute breakaway try, Ireland’s third, was already looking hobbled by the hamstring that had been injured in last week’s defeat to Australia and prevented him from training all week. He seemed to take an age before striking the ball, the Kiwis in the crowd growing louder in their impatience before the Racing Metro star struck out, pushing his kick wide. Game back on.
Those are moments which may well haunt Joe Schmidt as he bids farewell to his players and then spends the winter waiting for them to reappear in January ahead of his first Six Nations campaign.
He had been so agonisingly close to making history for Irish rugby against his countrymen in just his third game in charge and the disappointment was writ large on his face.
“As a coach you’re gutted but the amount of effort they expended out there was about the maximum you could ask of them,” Schmidt said afterwards. “Not to get a result that was in our hands is pretty devastating.”
You can say that again, and Schmidt did, but amidst the dismay was the realisation that this was a massive missed opportunity and one that may not come Ireland’s way for a very long time.
“We were in possession with a minute to go. To be a minute away from history, and have the ball in your hands on their 10-metre line, well it’s devastating.”
So the autumn internationals are over and Schmidt has his first three Tests under his belt: a disjointed win over Samoa, a disjointed, tryless defeat to Australia, and the heartbreak of one that got away against the All Blacks.
There are definitely positives to take, not least the way his players reacted positively to both the defensive errors committed against the Wallabies and the lack of attacking chances they converted nine days ago.
To put both of those spectacularly right against New Zealand, of all teams, is to be commended but now Schmidt has to ensure that this big performance does not represent the latest of a series of momentous highs only to be followed by more frustration when Scotland visit Dublin in 10 weeks for the first game of the 2014 championship. Having to “go to the well” in the wake of a morale-busting loss the week before should become a thing of the past, and both Schmidt and his players are only too aware that consistency of performance, marrying high levels of accuracy, intensity and clarity of thought has to be maintained.
“Jeez, I hope it is not the first page because if we want the page-turner to be something people get excited about, we have to be able to finish games like that,” Schmidt said when asked if yesterday’s performance represented his “new Ireland”.
“I know we were scratchy last week (against Australia), but I’d still contend we weren’t as bad as people kind of depicted us as, and I felt we progressed from the Samoa game to the Australian game and again I felt the progress was evident today.
“So I guess for us if we can bench mark that and get back somewhere close to it then we are going to be competitive and that’s where we want to be.”
So, a step forward but working out how to turn that “if” into reality is something to keep the Ireland coach busy over the coming winter.
IRELAND: R Kearney; T Bowe, B O’Driscoll (L Fitzgerald, 53), G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan, 75), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath, 69), R Best (S Cronin, 15), M Ross (D Fitzpatrick, 66); D Toner (M McCarthy, 66), P O’Connell, capt; P O’Mahony (K McLaughlin, 56), S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacement not used: I Boss.
NEW ZEALAND: I Dagg (R Crotty, 53); C Jane (B Barrett, 66), B Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; A Cruden, A Smith; W Crockett (B Franks, 60), A Hore (D Coles, 42), C Faumuina (O Franks, 56); S Whitelock, B Retallick; S Luatua (L Messam, 56), R McCaw, capt, K Read.
Replacement not used: S Cane, TJ Perenara.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).
60 second report
The key moment
It was at 79 minutes and 26 seconds that substitute forward Mike McCarthy took the ball into contact. Ireland were leading 22-17 and were 34 seconds from history. Somewhere in that ruck, a penalty was conceded and New Zealand staged their escape to victory.
We’ve had the big performance, but now Ireland fans will want to see their team pick up where they left off when the Six Nations comes around in February. Not knowing which Irish team is going to turn up each week has to become a thing of the past. Consistency has to be the objective for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.
Ireland lost try-scoring hooker Rory Best after just 15 minutes with an arm injury, while Brian O’Driscoll is understood to have suffered a stinger to his shoulder and Johnny Sexton limped out late on having survived 75 minutes before his injured hamstring tightened up.
The main man
For all the Irish endeavour, New Zealand captain Richie McCaw proved himself to be the perfect leader, instilling belief in his side that the game was never up.
Nigel Owens will be seen as a villain in the piece for allowing Aaron Cruden to re-take his 81st-minute, match-winning penalty but he appeared correct in stating the All Blacks fly-half had not begun his kick when the Ireland players rushed towards him, the trigger being foot movement from the kicker. Penalties conceded: Ireland 5 + 1 free-kick; New Zealand 8
The Guinness Series is at an end and the players return to their provinces and clubs. Joe Schmidt will have them back in for a mini-camp over Christmas before preparations for the 2014 Six Nations begin in earnest in late January.
- Brendan O’Brien
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved