New Zealand maintained their perfect record in 2013 with a hugely dramatic 24-22 win over Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The All Blacks scored a try deep into added time to tie the game at 22-22 before Aaron Cruden scored a twice-taken conversion to win it. Heartbreak for the Irish, but they can take plenty of positives from a sterling performance.
The first half was a pulsating affair that saw the Irish right at New Zealand from the kick-off. They stopped the All Blacks from establishing any kind of rhythm and cut through the world champions with some brutal and incisive play.
The visitors looked shell-shocked, and Ireland capitalized immediately as Conor Murray went over after a dynamic passing move. The Aviva Stadium went ballistic, and Jonny Sexton slotted the conversion with the "Fields of Athenry" ringing out.
Ireland were off to a flyer and New Zealand were totally rattled. Joe Schmidt’s side continued to push and were rewarded for their positivity further as they took a 14-0 lead inside ten minutes. Rory Best went over following superb work from Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Murray.
The Irish, roared on by a raucous crowd, were dominating in the tackle and winning everything in the breakdown. They kept their foot on New Zealand's and were winning the battle for what seemed like every single ball. The All Blacks were making uncharacteristic mistakes, and the Irish were punishing them. So, when Israel Dagg knocked the ball on on his own 22-yard line, you kind of knew what was coming.
Rob Kearney picked it up and burst forward with New Zealand hopelessly out of position. No All Black player got near him as he went over for a try after an 80-metre run. Sexton’s conversion hit the post, but the Irish were totally rampant and 19-0 up.
New Zealand are a fantastic team, though, and they soon got a foothold in the game. They began to put the Irish defence under some real pressure mid-way through the first half, and it told as Julian Savea picked up on Aaron Cruden’s precise kick in behind. Cruden converted and Steve Hansen’s side were right back in it.
Sexton added another three points before halftime, and despite the concession of that try, Ireland were in dreamland. 22-7 up against the All Blacks at halftime. The Aviva Stadium, awash with green and white, was bouncing.
The second period saw New Zealand put the Irish under more, expected pressure. Dagg thought he’d scored, but the TMO correctly ruled that the ball had been held up. Then, Cruden had two penalty opportunities in quick succession, but he only scored one.
Whilst Ireland continued to battle, they started to panic and looked to play territory, inviting the All Blacks back into the game and giving the likes of Cruden time to dictate proceeding. The men in green look sapped of energy, and the dangerous Savea started to become much more prominent.
On 65 minutes, he surged forward to get New Zealand within inches of scoring. The forwards came in and looked to batter the ball over the line. After a succession of phases, Ben Franks bulldozed through the green and white lines and over for the try. Cruden added the two, and New Zealand were within five points.
Sexton had the chance to finish New Zealand off with eight minutes to go, but his penalty kick just faded right of the post. It meant that a frantic finish ensued, with the All Blacks pushing unbelievably hard to preserve their 100 percent record in the calendar year. Ma’a Nonu could have gone through, but he knocked on an easy ball. That looked to be their last chance. Perhaps it just wasn't their day?
But there is a reason this team have a perfect record this year, and they showed exactly why in the dying embers of the game. They won the ball back and put the Irish under pressure, which continued deep, deep into added time. They passed incisively and probed at a ragged Irish defence before Ryan Crotty went over in the corner to tie the game up.
The Aviva Stadium fell silent, and New Zealand knew they had a kick to win it. Cruden stepped up from a tight angle, but his kick drifted wide. At least Ireland avoided defeat.
But, the drama didn’t end there. Ireland charged the kicker too early, and Cruden had another chance. This time, he pinged it right through the middle, and Irish hearts were broken.
It concluded what was quite frankly an astonishing game of rugby. Both teams deserve enormous amounts of credit for their efforts, and a draw in the end probably would have been a fair result.
But the All Blacks are winners, ruthless in their play and such a difficult side to beat.
For Ireland, the wait for their first win over New Zealand goes on. They’ll never come closer than they did today.