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'It wasn't meant to be': John Plumtree's candid reflections on Dublin 2013

By Tom Vinicombe
Aaron Smith, Ma'a Nonu and Julian Savea celebrate after the All Blacks' comeback victory over Ireland in 2013. (Photo by James Crombie/Photosport)

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While it wasn’t until 2016 that Ireland first triumphed over the All Blacks, scoring a 40-29 win at Soldier Field in Chicago to end 111 years of heartache, the nation had come incredibly close to tipping over NZ just three years earlier in Dublin.

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In the final test of the season for both sides, Ireland had built a commanding 22-7 lead at halftime in Dublin off the back of tries to Conor Murray, Rory Best and Rob Kearney.

The tide turned in the second half, however, and with Ireland unable to bank any points, the All Blacks came storming back into the match and found themselves just five points adrift entering the final 10 minutes of the game.

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The All Blacks threw everything at Ireland but couldn’t crack the defence and with Ireland holding possession inside the New Zealand half and just one minute left to play, it looked like the home side were finally about to achieve the historic result they’d been chasing for so long.

But it wasn’t to be.

With 40 seconds left on the clock, Ireland were penalised for sealing off the breakdown, handing the All Blacks one last roll of the dice.

One Aaron Smith tap later and away the visitors went, putting together 11 phases of play and fighting their way into the opposition 22 before the ball was swung left to replacement hooker Dane Coles. Coles stepped inside a defender and shifted the ball to No 23 Ryan Crotty, who stumbled over the line and ended Ireland’s chances of a victory. To rub salt into the wounds, Aaron Cruden converted from wide out on his second attempt, after the overzealous Irish players attempted to charge earlier, and the game ended 24-22 in New Zealand’s favour.

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At that point in time, Ian Foster – the current All Blacks coach – was in his first year assisting Steve Hansen. On the other side of the ledger, Foster’s current assistant, John Plumtree, was working with the Irish set-up.

While the game and the end result was unsurprisingly hugely satisfying for the All Blacks, Plumtree’s emotions were on the other end of the spectrum.

“I still remember that match pretty vividly, actually,” Plumtree said this week, ahead of facing off with his former side.

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“I think the week before, we got absolutely dealt to by the Australians, by 30 points I think, so I think the All Blacks probably came to Aviva Stadium that day thinking that we weren’t much good. But the preparation that week, we were pretty annoyed with the way we played against the Australians on that weekend, and we had a great build-up. I think the All Blacks were pretty much finishing their northern tour as well, so I remember that Irish group was primed to do a good job that day and they were looking forward to it.

“We played some pretty good footy in the first half and got up, and then I think in the second half, we didn’t play as well. I think our bench wasn’t quite as good as we thought it might have been, and the All Blacks forced their way back into the game, and I think Johnny [Sexton] missed a crucial penalty that probably would have nailed it, and then that gave the All Blacks a little bit of hope and belief.

“The last two minutes of that game was pretty frantic, and I can remember a penalty being awarded and a quick tap and, next minute, Dane Coles put Ryan Crotty into a bit of space and they scored, and that was it.

“I was pretty annoyed after the game, to be honest. Nothing like taking on the All Blacks as a rival coach and doing well, but I suppose it wasn’t meant to be.”

While the loss was a disappointing way to finish the year, it provide Ireland with ample motivation ahead of their Six Nations campaign, with Hansen visiting the side’s changing room to commend the side – and fellow Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt – for their efforts.

“One thing I do remember is Steve Hansen coming up to me after the game and saying to me, ‘Would it be okay if we came into the Irish changing room just to have a word to the boys?’, and I said, ‘Yeah, no problem’, so I took Steve into the changing room and he said, ‘Hey, listen boys, bad luck tonight, just use this as fuel to kick-on for a really good Six Nations’, and, in that Six Nations that started however many weeks later, we did really well and won it, so it was a good launching pad for us as an Irish team that year. It was Joe’s first Six Nations win, so it was a good memory, being here, coaching that team.”

The historic win in Chicago three years later was quickly followed by a second, with Ireland claiming a 16-9 victory in Dublin in 2018. The two sides’ most recent encounter, at the Rugby World Cup in 2019, saw the All Blacks record a comprehensive 46-14 win.

This weekend, another tight battle is anticipated by Plumtree, especially if the rain plummets over Aviva Stadium as expected.

“We know what a tough challenge this is going to be, and the boys know that the Irish boys respect the All Blacks, absolutely, but we know we’ll have to work hard and earn everything on Saturday night, as a forward pack and as a team.”

Saturday’s match kicks off at 3:15pm GMT from Dublin (4:15am on Sunday for NZ viewers).

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