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Only mystery was that Ireland didn't win by more than nine points

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by PA)

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What is rare is wonderful but what is becoming increasingly familiar can be just as magical. Having waited more than 100 hundred years to bag an elusive first win over the All Blacks, Ireland have become quite the headache and a capacity crowd skipped its way out of the Aviva Stadium overjoyed that the home side had just beaten the visitors for the third time in the past five meetings. 

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The occasion was electric, a privilege to watch unfold from high up in the media box, and it ended perfectly from an Irish perspective with the clock striking 5.15pm on a beautiful autumnal evening in Dublin and James Lowe, a born-and-bred Kiwi, getting his hands on the ball and gleefully belting it into the crowd at the Havelock End Square to signal the end of a thrilling 29-20 contest and the start of a raucous Irish party. 

The only mystery about it all was that they hadn’t won it by more than nine points. Despite dominating possession and territory to the restive tune of 70 and 73 per cent in a first-half where the All Blacks had put in a whopping 160 tackles compared to a meagre 37 from the hosts, it was New Zealand went into the interval 10-5 ahead and leaving home supporters fretting their chance might have gone.  

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Ireland may have put England to the sword last March in the Six Nations to give the slow-to-get-going Andy Farrell era some legs, but there had yet to be compelling evidence on the Englishman’s watch as the head coach that his Irish team are the real deal going up against the best. 

Now there can’t be a debate any longer. Ireland horsed into the second-half, pulling level on 44 minutes and blasting into a 51st-minute lead they were never to lose in a performance every bit as good if not greater than the 2016 and 2018 wins over the All Blacks in Chicago and Dublin. 

Most pleasing for the Irish will be how new heroes emerged. So much of their team has depended over the years on Johnny Sexton and his orchestral manoeuvres but there is a new breed of young bucks now making hay. Top of the list was Caelan Doris, followed not far behind by the likes of Ronan Kelleher, Jamison Gibson-Park, James Lowe, Andrew Conway and replacement Tadhg Beirne. 

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Some of those players were on the radar under Joe Schmidt but there is now power and poise to their play that reflects well on Farrell and his ability at a new head coach at this level to tease players onto heights that mightn’t have been expected of them.  

Doris and Conan, for instance, blacked out the All Blacks with their back row dominance and while the fear that there remains too high a dependence on the veteran Sexton as the No1 out-half, the growth in other sectors of this Irish team can only be admired. 

Unlike what took place in Cardiff and Rome in recent weeks, Ireland took the All Blacks to a place of discomfort, all the while their energetic efforts boisterously roared on by a lustful home crowd that played its part in making this a partisan arena that upset the usual trend of these European tours by New Zealand.  

Only England in 2012 and Ireland in 2018 had managed to successfully stage an ambush this last decade when the world’s most consistent side have arrived into one of the great rugby cathedrals in this neck of the woods, but there was something in the air before kick-off that gave a hint there was magic about to unfold.  

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It was 20 minutes before kick-off, with Ireland running through some contact play refereed by Simon Easterby at the same time that the All Blacks jogged towards the dressing rooms, when the stadium PA system struck up ‘Ready’, a hit song from local band Kodaline.

Were they primed? The crowd sure were, fusing into a rousing few bars of The Fields of Athenry to take the sting out of the pre-game haka. Referee Luke Pearce then blew his whistle and some excellent rugby that you couldn’t take your eye off broke out. 

Ireland had been lauded for the unpredictability of their attack when putting Japan to the sword a week earlier and this newfound creativity wasn’t a one-off as their slick handling and ambition to frequently switch the point of attack had the All Blacks guessing a way that was uncomfortable for them.   

That said, there was a reason why the likes of Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane and Sevu Reece were among the tier one chart-toppers making the most clean breaks in Test games in 2021. Their potency needed to be shut down and Irish determination to do this was evident in how they reacted to a Beauden Barrett cross-kick gobbled up by Jordan. 

He was checked by the alert Lowe and neither Ronan Kelleher nor Garry Ringrose flinched when painfully double tackling to prevent Jordie Barrett from scoring on the recycle. That set the tone for the air-punching exploits of Lowe finishing in the corner on 14 minutes not long after Codie Taylor was yellow-carded for his illegality on Sexton. 

Despite all their chances, though, Ireland only ‘won’ the sin-binning 5-3 and their frustrations were encapsulated around the half-hour when Tadhg Furlong has his try ruled out due to Kelleher’s second movement, a disappointment compounded by Taylor quickly finishing off a break from Dalton Papalii that stemmed a lineout.

It was a clinical riposte from an All Blacks side that had lost Beauden Barrett and they took a five-point lead with them to the interval that any supporter of green persuasion would argue was against the run of play. What soothed the Irish soul was the half-time memorial song the late Anthony Foley and Farrell heroes re-emerged for the second half intent on more nuisance but more importantly an end product to go with it.  

The tries from Kelleher and Doris were expertly taken but the All Blacks didn’t fall away, Jordan producing some sublime try-scoring initiative of his own before the visitors were left to rue the forward pass that scrubbed out a 67th-minute score for Akira Ioane. 

With Jordie Barrett forced to settle for a shot at the posts instead, there was still only three points in it coming down the finishing stretch but Irish hearts refused to wilt and they instead carried the day, late penalties seeing the likes of Peter O’Mahony dancing a merry jig before Lowe’s belt of the ball into the stands rounded it all off. 

The best thing about it all is we won’t have long to wait for more of the same. Ireland have a three-Test tour against the All Blacks on the horizon in 2022 in New Zealand, three matches that will definitely be a must-watch for all rugby fans as this colourful rivalry has taken on an adventurous new meaning these last few years.  

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