Ireland suffered an agonising 24-22 defeat to New Zealand with the last kick of the game at the Aviva Stadium.
An injury-time try from replacement Ryan Crotty drew the All Blacks level, and Aaron Cruden secured their 14th win from 14 matches in 2013 with the conversion.
After capitulating so heavily against Australia last week, this was a transformed Ireland team that raced into a 19-0 lead inside 20 minutes.
But, the fact they are still searching for their first win over the All Blacks after such a strong start—and still leading into injury time—will be a wound that will take some time to heal.
For the All Blacks, they are the first side in the professional era to win every match in a calendar year.
But, they were made to work for it.
Here’s what we learned.
1. Possession equals points
Ireland’s 57 percent possession in the first half reflected their halftime lead of 22-7, but in the second half, they had just 38 percent of the ball.
At Test level, that’s an awful lot of defending to do against the best attacking outfit on the planet. And still, it took New Zealand until the 82nd minute to take the lead for the first time.
What a shame it is for Ireland that they couldn’t keep the ball at the death.
We have seen Munster expertly run down a clock so many times with a tight pick-and-go strategy, but on this occasion, they fell just a minute short of doing the same and paid dearly for it.
2. New Zealanders never say die
Twenty-four hours before the All Blacks completed their perfect year in Dublin with a last gasp conversion, their rugby league counterparts were doing the same in London.
The Kiwis conjured a last minute try and conversion to beat England in the semifinal of the 13-man code World Cup, and the 15-man All Blacks repeated the trick across the Irish sea.
If it teaches us anything about the sporting mentality of the men from the Land of the Long, White Cloud, it’s that they never know when they’re beaten.
3. Ireland will grow from this
After a disastrous start for their new coach Joe Schmidt last weekend, this was a vastly improved Irish display that shows they can combine intensity and accuracy to take on the world’s best.
They roared into action in this contest and deserved their lead.
The pain of what might have been will take some soothing, particularly for Jonny Sexton, who missed a late, reasonably simple penalty that would have put the result beyond doubt.
4. New Zealand could be vulnerable in 2015
There are two reasons for this.
- They have been famous for peaking in between World Cups and imploding during the tournament. They managed to break that particular hoodoo in 2011, but that was on home soil.
- The next World Cup happens in October up here in the Northern Hemisphere. We have just seen the All Blacks come close to defeat in all three of their tests here at the end of a long, hard season.
Anyone etching their name into the trophy for a third time would do well to consider the size of the challenge that lies ahead.
5. Pressure kickers as valuable as ever
When Jonny Sexton lined his late penalty kick up to put Ireland eight points clear, there wasn’t an Irishman in the stadium who didn’t expect him to nail it.
He missed, and New Zealand remained in touch. After they had scored their late try, Aaron Cruden still had to slot the conversion to give them their 100 percent record this year.
Having missed with his first attempt, he got another bite at the cherry after Nigel Owens had penalized Ireland for an early chase, and he didn’t make the same mistake.
In the end, this contrast in composure between the two No. 10s was the difference. Just two days after, on the anniversary of Jonny Wilkinson’s World Cup-winning drop goal, this was a timely reminder of the value of a kicker with ice in his veins.
A decade on, such a player remains a highly valuable commodity in test-match rugby.
6. A perfect season does not mean a perfect team
They will go down as the "invincibles" for their 14 wins in 14 outings this year, but the blueprint to unpick this All Black side is there for all to see.
And, it’s not rocket science. In fact, it is founded on the basic principles required to beat anyone. Win the collisions, clear rucks at speed and use your kicking game intelligently.
New Zealand will ship tries if these strategies are executed well and at pace, as Ireland displayed.
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