The history hits just keep on coming for Ireland. The first win in New Zealand last week was followed by another first in Wellington: a second consecutive victory over the All Blacks to take the Test series against the most formidable of rugby nations for the first time since matches between the two began in 1905.
“This is a special group,” reflected the Ireland coach, Andy Farrell, amid jubilant scenes. “This is probably the toughest thing to do in world rugby. We said it was going to be the start of our World Cup year but, I don’t know, it’s probably a little bit bigger than that.”
It is a testament to his sanguine, grounded, yet clearly inspirational leadership of Ireland that his consideration of this historic achievement was put within the context of the next milestone. “It’s clear how much belief [we have] and it starts with the main man, Faz,” said Ireland’s captain, Johnny Sexton. “It’s all credit to him, really.”
For all Farrell’s actions beforehand, it was those on the pitch who had to grasp this moment, and for the third week on the bounce Ireland touched down early. Josh van der Flier’s flop over from a lineout drive after three minutes set the tone for a first-half highlights reel of all that is good about Ireland.
Organized and dynamic attack from multiple phases, alloyed with power and guile in the tight situations, restricted New Zealand to a Jordie Barrett penalty and created a brace of further tries before the break. The first came from a delicious miss pass finding Hugo Keenan to ground wide left, before two rapid phases behind a scrum in the All Blacks’ 22 allowed Bundee Aki to feed Robbie Henshaw, who cantered in unopposed. Added conversions from Sexton allowed the captain to lead his side from the field 22-3 up.
As disjointed and jittery as the home side were in the opening 40, this was quickly stamped out at the start of the second, particularly under the boot of Ardie Savea. The New Zealand No 8 took responsibility for dragging his team back into the match by forcing through two Irish tacklers to open his side’s try account, then got among the Ireland breakdown to win a penalty.
Speaking of penalties, a pivotal moment appeared to arrive on 50 minutes as Andrew Porter clashed heads in his tackle on Brodie Retallick. At first glance it looked similar to the incident that led to Angus Ta’avao seeing red last week, but Wayne Barnes considered Porter’s contact less dominant and issued only a yellow.
Undeterred by any sense of injustice, the All Blacks scored within a minute, Akira Ioane with his first international try after a strong run pushed through weak tackling from Dan Sheehan and Van der Flier. Sexton extended the lead from the tee before Savea – the one-man cavalry charge – popped a clever pass to Will Jordan for the wing to streak 80 meters to touch down.
With 20 minutes to go and three points the difference, the next score was crucial. Rob Herring, newly on to the field, calmly hit his lineout jumper before peeling off the back of the maul and driving through an army of defenders to stretch to the line.
The 10-point cushion did little to alleviate the sense of dread as New Zealand dominated the closing minutes. With this, Tadhg Beirne decided Savea would not be taking the individual plaudits come the close, the Munster lock making three decisive defensive interventions at the breakdown. Each one killed an ominous All Black attack. An incredible, game-winning effort. As the clock drifted into the final minute, Peter O’Mahony was already in tears – the magnitude of the achievement setting in. Come the end he wasn’t the only one. “I bet you we have four million at home up for breakfast, probably having a couple of pints watching us,” said Sexton. “We speak about them all of the time, we want to do them proud, and we certainly did that.”
“This has never been done before,” added O’Mahony. “It’s something I never thought was possible as a young fella, but now the young fellas back home will know this can be done.” After 100 years of trying, this Ireland team has ushered in a step-change in the art of the possible.