Sunday 18 February 2018

Redemption and heartbreak as our wait for elusive victory goes on

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

ROB Kearney swallowed deep, describing it as the "worst" finish to any game he had endured in his rugby life.

Devastation could be seen writ large across every Irish face as the opportunity of a first-ever victory over the All Blacks was spurned in such wretchedly cruel circumstances at Lansdowne Road.

"Maybe that's why people love sport, because it's so unpredictable," sighed the Ireland full-back.

The best rugby team in the world usually approach fixtures in this part of the world as if believing they have already been decided in the womb.

And, this time, New Zealand arrived in Dublin pre-occupied with themselves and the opportunity to complete a first-ever clean-sweep season in the professional era. Ireland, it was assumed, would amount to no more than a simple punctuation mark in the broader narrative.

But, in only their third outing under Joe Schmidt's leadership, they summoned their finest performance since the 2011 World Cup win over Australia at Eden Park.

It was one that even moved All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen, to preface his post-match press conference with a tribute to what he termed a "sensational" performance from Ireland.

The spectacle of Schmidt's men storming into a 19-0 lead inside the first quarter brought the silver bowl of the Aviva to life in a way never previously seen in its young life. Ireland's aggression at the breakdown, their accuracy in possession and the sheer, homicidal intensity with which they were willing to fight for the rugby world's most prized scalp threw up great thunderclaps of noise into the cold south Dublin air.

"I guess I would sum it up as a step forward, but a missed opportunity," sighed Schmidt after Ireland were held scoreless virtually for the last 50 minutes of an extraordinary game.


"You don't get that many opportunities to play the All Blacks or to stop them doing something very special."

Ireland had come close before, most notably in a 10-10 draw at Lansdowne Road in 1973 and, more recently, a heartbreakingly close call in Christchurch last summer.

But there was a raw, primal dimension to yesterday's contest that had those assembled in the packed stadium spellbound from beginning to end.

It bore a stark emotional dynamic too, representing as it did the final opportunity for two of the country's greatest players, Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, to pin a victory over the All Blacks to their already glittering bodies of work.

O'Driscoll ran into a blizzard of ageism after last week's heavy defeat by the Wallabies, all but finding himself depicted as someone so old he'd taken to telling team-mates to speak up and looking for bifocals to read his match programme in the dressing room.

Yet, he played with the fury of old here and it was an elemental hit on the giant New Zealand lock, Brodie Retallick, that forced his reluctant departure to the West stand with suspected concussion in the 52nd minute, Ireland still 12 points to the good.

It was a redemptive day on so many levels given the carelessness and lethargy evident during the defeat by Australia, yet history essentially takes an interest only in the coldest of final audits.

Johnny Sexton pushed a kickable 73rd-minute penalty inches to the right and wide with Ireland leading by five points, a miss that New Zealand captain Richie McCaw admitted afterwards gave a palpable "lift" to the world champions.

"If that had gone over, the game was probably gone," said McCaw.

Instead, the All Blacks felt emboldened by the knowledge that they were still a converted try away from victory.

What followed was heart-breaking for the Irish, but a testament to the mental strength of a team now being compared to the best the game has ever seen.

"I think we maybe got a little tired," reflected Kearney on those last seconds that culminated with Ryan Crotty diving over for an 82nd minute New Zealand try.

"Fair play," said Kearney. "That last 35-40 seconds, they got the try they needed."

The remainder mattered only to one team in the stadium now. With the chance of victory wrenched from their grasp, Ireland's players gathering under their posts less for a team huddle than an autopsy. But the Blacks were now spellbound.


Aaron Cruden still had to kick an awkward conversion to ring-fence their perfect season and, when he pushed his effort wide, Nigel Owens demanded a re-take because of Ireland's premature charge. Second time up, Cruden nailed it and the greatest team in the world went dancing around the Aviva like expectant kids outside Santa's grotto.

History had been grasped from the hottest of Dublin furnaces.

Irish Independent

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