Heading into the final All Blacks fixture of the 2013 test season, Steve Hansen’s side were sitting on the precipice of creating rugby history.
Undefeated in all 13 matches heading into Aviva Stadium, the Kiwis needed to dispatch Ireland to become the first international side to complete an unbeaten season in the professional era.
New Zealand’s prospects of achieving that unprecedented feat got off to a rocky start, though, as Ireland took the game to the visitors in Dublin right from the opening whistle.
Conor Murray burrowed his way over for the first try of the contest after just five minutes, with hooker Rory Best doubling down just six minutes later following some persistent build-up play deep in All Blacks territory.
Rob Kearney then capitalised on an Israel Dagg knock on to canter away for an 80 metre try to give the Irish a 19-0 lead after just 18 minutes.
While the home crowd were sent into raptures about their side’s early blitz of the reigning world champions, the All Blacks were left astonished as they stared down the barrel of their first ever defeat to Ireland.
“I was just sitting on the bench and I was shocked,” All Blacks playmaker Beauden Barrett, who donned the No. 22 jersey that day, recalled of the fixture.
“Looking around and watching the Irish and the crowds, they couldn’t believe it as well.”
With all the momentum going Ireland’s way, the All Blacks desperately needed a reprise before half-time, and they got that in the form of a Julian Savea try from a nicely weighted Aaron Cruden grubber in the 26th minute.
A Johnny Sexton penalty goal extended Ireland’s lead to 22-7 at the break, but Cruden’s three-pointer 13 minutes after the break cancelled out that score as they All Blacks continued their comeback.
A try to reserve prop Ben Franks from some continuous pick-and-go work in the 65th minute saw the New Zealanders edge closer to chasing down the hosts, who were handed a chance to seal the game inside the final 10 minutes.
The All Blacks were penalised for dragging a maul down just shy of their own tryline, giving Sexton the chance to extend Ireland’s buffer beyond the crucial seven-point buffer.
However, the 2018 World Rugby player of the year shanked the relatively easy penalty attempt astray, sending it to the right of the posts from the 22 metre mark to keep the Kiwis in with a shout with the scoreline sitting at 22-17.
From there, the All Blacks took the opportunity to snatch a late victory with both hands after being granted a penalty by referee Nigel Owens from inside their own 10 metre mark with little more than a minute on the clock.
What followed was arguably one of the most composed, measured sequences of build-up play, given the circumstances for both teams, seen in international rugby.
Multiple phases of build-up play that extended deep into injury time allowed the All Blacks to steadily encompass 60 metres of the pitch, with Hansen’s men eventually knocking on the door of the Irish tryline.
“One try, we’ve got the firepower to do that,” All Blacks captain Richie McCaw later re-called. “Even if we’ve had a bad 75 minutes, 78 minutes, there’s still a chance to put it together.”
That the New Zealanders did, with an Aaron Cruden skip pass finding the hands of replacement hooker Dane Coles, who managed to suck in two Irish defenders on the left wing and free up reserve midfielder Ryan Crotty to scramble over to level the scores in dramatic fashion.
“It was unreal,” Crotty said of the try. “[It was] kind of a blur, if that makes sense. It just happened.
“The 14 guys inside you that did the job to create that was pretty impressive.”
Entrusted with putting the final nail in the coffin, more drama ensued Cruden’s misfired conversion attempt was voided due to a trio of Irish players rushing up to charge the kick down too early.
Handed a second chance to seal the deal from wide out on the left-hand touchline, Cruden didn’t muff his follow-up effort, sending the ball down the middle of the posts to hand the All Blacks a famous 24-22 victory.
The magnitude of the clash wasn’t lost on pundits around the world, who took to Twitter to express their amazement at the result that had silenced the Irish crowd after their raucous support of the home side in the first half.
Hard to take that loss to the All Blacks!!
— Gordon D'Arcy 80 (@gordondarcy) November 25, 2013
What a game between The All Blacks & Ireland.. All year round unbeaten, unbelievable!! #NailBitingGame ?
— Jack Leith (@94Leithy) November 25, 2013
The day after Ireland lost to the All Blacks can Fock Right Off.
— Ross O'Carroll-Kelly (@RossOCK) November 25, 2013
All Blacks hold every trophy available to them: World Cup, Bled Cup, Rug Champ, Freedom Cup, Dave Gallaher Trophy, Hillary Shield #respect
— Mark Keohane (@mark_keohane) November 25, 2013
Congratulatiins Ireland on an outstanding performance against the All Blacks……..ROBBED.!
— Shane Withington. (@ripperriver) November 24, 2013
Read was never going to catch Kearney for his try but his never say die attitude in keeping him in the corner sums up the All Blacks mindset
— Cian Tracey (@CianTracey1) November 25, 2013
— Eranda Wijewickrama (@erandawije) November 25, 2013
As much as I love the all blacks, I honestly believe that Ireland deserved that game…however newzealand's determination is 2nd to none
— aaron (@Sealey_21) November 25, 2013
It's a testament to the All Blacks' defense that Ireland didn't win. Honestly, it's kind of a miracle. #IREvNZ
— JC (@CRISTJL1) November 25, 2013
Stuff’s Marc Hinton described the Irish as “gallant and desperately unlucky” in his post mortem, a sentiment of which was echoed by the NZ Herald‘s Patrick McKendry, who wrote: “It was so cruel on Ireland, a most unlikely of victories for the All Blacks. A perfect season but not a perfect performance.”
“It’s a funny old feeling, actually,” McCaw said in a celebratory changing room post-match. “We wanted to perform well, we didn’t really, we weren’t allowed to.
“The Irish played bloody well, but you’ve got take your hat off to the boys in this team, the belief and just hanging in there. We got there in the end.”
McCaw went on to reveal an experience in his first year as a professional with Canterbury back in 2000 that helped build his mental fortitude required to overcome the hearty Irish performance.
“My first year playing rugby, I was in a Canterbury team with Todd Blackadder defending the [Ranfurly] Shield. We were down 29-12 with 15 to go and just thought the game was over, and he just said ‘Nah, we’ll win this boys’, and he believed.
“From that point on, I’ve always thought to myself when it gets tough, you’ve got to remember they’re feeling the pressure as well, and keep believing.
“That experience I’ve always held with me, and today, you just had to hang in there. When they missed that penalty with a few minutes to go, we had out chance, and we took it.”
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