It was heartbreak for Ireland as they missed out on a rare chance of beating the All Blacks with the visitors scoring an injury time converted try to pinch the game 22 – 24.
Ireland led 22 -17 as the clock went into the red zone but Crotty’s try, converted at the second attempt by Cruden, broke Irish hearts and silenced the crowd as New Zealand finished 2013 with 14 wins out of 14 played.
I’d said before the game that I didn’t expect much from Ireland, particularly after their capitulation to Australia last weekend, but the ageing Leinster players O’Driscoll and D’Arcy, together with Munster’s Paul O’Connell proved they deserved their last tilt at New Zealand after a furious opening 20 minutes which had the All Blacks reeling. Though playing an injured Sexton ahead of the inform Jackson was a questionable decision to say the least.
In an astonishing opening quarter Ireland clocked up tries from Conor Murray, Rory Best and, a length of the field effort from, Rob Kearney to take a 19 – 0 lead but it was the overall aggression of the whole team and the spoiling work at the breakdown by O’Driscoll and D’Arcy that stood out.
Unfortunately Rory Best went off with a suspected broken arm shortly after scoring but even with Best it would have been difficult for Ireland to keep up their frenetic pace and New Zealand responded in the 26th minute with a clever kick from Cruden sending Savea behind the onrushing defence to gather and score.
The expected Irish collapse didn’t come and Sexton added a precious penalty on the 33rd minute to put Ireland back to three scores in front with a 22 – 7 lead, which they maintained until the break.
After cheering the boys through an almost faultless first half I was somewhat dismayed minutes into the second half as they started to play for time at the set pieces. It started with Cronin pissing about at scrum time and carried on with players meandering to line outs, but in trying to slow down the game they allowed their opponents to compose themselves and invited New Zealand on!
However, having weathered the storm till the 55th minute, and only conceding one further penalty, Ireland still looked well set with a 22 – 10 lead but when O’Driscoll went off on the 59th minute and Ben Franks crashed over six minutes later for a converted try the game took on a decidedly edgy feel!
Ireland rallied for one last effort and looked to have done enough when they were awarded a penalty to put them back to two scores clear but Sexton pulled it inches wide and the All Blacks heaved a huge sigh of relief. (Imaging the grief Jackson would have got if he had missed that one!)
As the clock continued to tick down it looked as though Ireland had done enough to secure an historic first victory against the All Blacks until a brain fart by Jack McGrath handed New Zealand a penalty with 30 seconds to go.
Two minutes of relentless pressure later, which seemed to stretch to two hours, and Crotty was scampering in at the corner for the equalising try and Irish heartbreak. Those broken hearts where then ripped out and stamped on as Cruden got two chances to convert for the win after an early attempt at a charge down for the first.
The second effort sailed straight and true through the posts as New Zealand celebrated their own historic achievement of completing 2013 with an unblemished win record.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Declan Fitzpatrick, Mike McCarthy, Kevin McLaughlin, Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan, Luke Fitzgerald.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Ben Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden,Aaron Smith, Wyatt Crockett, Andrew Hore, Charlie Faumuina, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Steven Luatua, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read. Replacements: Dane Coles, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Liam Messam, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty.
While I’ve a degree of sympathy for Joe Scmidt in giving his Leinster old boys one last tilt at the World Champions the decision to select an injured Sexton ahead of the inform Jackson smacks of nepotism, a worrying trait, but seemingly a mandatory one in Irish coaches!