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Saturday 22 September 2018

All becomes nothing

Last-gasp Kiwi try kills Irish dream of long-awaited win

New Zealand's Ryan Crotty goes over for his side's final try despite the tackle of Ireland's Conor Murray. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
New Zealand's Ryan Crotty goes over for his side's final try despite the tackle of Ireland's Conor Murray. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

THE air of doom and gloom around the Aviva Stadium reflected the skies above it – black and ominous. Would they open up and rain down the tries so certainly forecasted?

The tries came alright, the first three from Ireland to set up a shot at history, the next three from New Zealand as the world champions made it 28 test matches without a loss against their hosts by virtue of an injury-time touchdown by Ryan Crotty and Aaron Cruden's twice-taken conversion for a 24-22 win.

This tumultuous test match proved beyond doubt that you don't need a rickety old stadium or half-a-gallon of porter swilling around inside to generate an atmosphere.

The tone was set from the kick-off. Tommy Bowe took it. Rory Best scrapped for a turnover. The penalty came. The lineout too. Paul O'Connell scraped it off the top. Cian Healy switched the turbo to 'on'. Jamie Heaslip fizzed the footwork, Peter O'Mahony the crash ball, Conor Murray the snipe and referee Nigel Owens the decision for a try. Jonathan Sexton converted.

It was everything coach Joe Schmidt called for.

The restart was spilled forward by Devin Toner and that was the crack New Zealand were probing for. They had the perfect platform.

Ireland employed thunderous line speed and that 'touch of madness' to clatter and scatter. O'Brien cracked the line. Murray was there with his fingertips. Rory Best slid inside the weak shoulder for try number two in the 10th minute. Sexton obliged again from the right for 14-0.

The Irish could not clean up the restarts, inviting pressure. They still stood firm, Mike Ross collaring Ma'a Nonu. Hooker Best's shoulder gave way in the 15th minute.

Seán Cronin's first action was to locate Toner at a defensive lineout and the pack formed an unbreakable unit to motor the maul for 20 metres and a penalty.

Then, 'Rob the Rib' Kearney took off when Israel Dagg spilled the ball and had the legs to hold off Kieran Read for another stunning hammer blow. Sexton's conversion rebounded off the left upright. They were 19 points ahead.

Onslaught

Ma'a Nonu's diagonal kick was too much for Dave Kearney and the onslaught started again. The twin towers O'Connell and Toner rocked the ball from Charlie Faumuina for another turnover for scrum ball no more than five metres out.

There would be retribution. It came off the back of Aaron Smith's orchestration and Aaron Cruden's tickler in behind for Julian Savea to finish. Cruden added the conversion.

It was Ireland's turn to react. Healy obliterated McCaw in contact. Mike Ross trundled for 10 epic metres. Brian O'Driscoll torpedoed forward for five. Sexton another two or three.

When the dust settled, Ireland were given a scrum. Healy and Ross turned the screw on Wyatt Crockett and Faumuina. Sexton clicked up three more points.

The All Blacks were in a state of confusion, best illustrated by McCaw's indecision over whether to take a penalty or a scrum back when O'Connell showed up playing the ball in front of Bowe.

It was no accident that O'Brien and Healy were the last two Irishmen to leave the field of play. They were beastly bedfellows on the rampage.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt would have drilled home the importance of not conceding early in the second half. Ross hammered Steven Luatua. O'Brien clamped down on McCaw for a penalty. New Zealand turned down a shot at goal 30 metres out for a scrum in an apparent show of confidence. It didn't work for them.

Bowe speared in to intercept a ball. New Zealand went for position instead of points again from the next penalty. Devin Toner stole a lineout. But the home side were struggling to clear their lines.

The space was on the outside. Dagg accelerated. Somehow, Conor Murray got his paw in under the ball.

Murray was there again to force a turnover, only for Toner to step across Crockett for Cruden to strike from close range to make it 22-10.

O'Driscoll was forced off from a front-on collision with Brodie Retallick for Luke Fitzgerald to enter. O'Brien was whistled at a ruck. Cruden pulled his shot low and left. The tide of possession rolled forward.

Then, Fitzgerald forced a penalty from Nonu's slip. The hour mark tipped agonisingly by, 12 points in it. Cruden was beginning to look for grass with his boot. Read took Rob Kearney out in the air.

Respite

The respite didn't last long. Ireland's defence was battling on the back-foot, visibly tiring. It would only take one hole and prop Ben Franks powered through it for Cruden's extras to make it 22-17 in the 65th minute.

Ireland had to have oxygen away from their half. Sexton's chip put Julien Savea in trouble. A grubber down the short side was finely judged. The lineout went to Ireland. The maul was patient and punishing. The penalty came. It was the most important kick in the career of Sexton. From the right. Missable. Missed.

It wasn't the difference in the end. Ireland couldn't control the ball. The All Blacks had the composure to move 70 metres through countless phases for replacement Ryan Crotty to get on the end of the attack.

New Zealand ended the season unbeaten. Ireland will continue theirs undaunted.

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