By Harry Hatton
On the afternoon of November 24th, 2013, the Irish rugby team seemed for one brief moment of time as if they were on top of the world.
At the Aviva Stadium that winter afternoon, Ireland had breezed into a 19-0 lead against New Zealand inside 20 minutes of action. It was incredible stuff, being in such a commanding position against the most feared and dominant rugby nation on the planet.
However, New Zealand demonstrated why they are the world’s best by overhauling Ireland’s lead with a late try and conversion to snatch victory by two points.
The manner in which New Zealand actually came out victorious was one of the hardest things for Joe Schmidt’s weary charges to take.
The Television Match Official (TMO) had to be called in to confirm that Dane Coles’ pass to substitute Ryan Crotty was not forward. That decision tied the teams up but there would be more drama to follow.
Aaron Cruden’s conversion attempt went wide of the posts but Welsh referee Nigel Owens ordered it to be retaken as he deemed Ireland to have charged out from their goal too early.
Cruden found the target at the second attempt which left the home side stunned and still without a test victory over New Zealand. At that stage three years ago, we wondered what it would take for us to ever beat the world’s best team.
Two weeks ago, we discovered just that … the best way to beat New Zealand is to take the game to them and put them on the back foot. And that’s exactly what Schmidt’s determined band of warriors did at Soldier Field, Chicago in front of 62,300 spectators.
They stood up to the task even before kick-off. As the All Blacks performed their customary Haka war dance, the entire Irish match-day squad stood in a figure of eight in memory of the late Anthony Foley, the Munster and Irish stalwart who passed away in October.
Ireland were mentally and physically ready for the big occasion against a side that had eight survivors from their World Cup final triumph over Australia a year previously.
Tries from back row forwards Jordi Murphy and CJ Stander in addition to Conor Murray crossing the line meant that Ireland held a 25-8 lead at half-time. Winger Simon Zebo stretched Ireland’s lead with another try after the break before the inevitable New Zealand onslaught began.
The world champions displayed their strength in depth as tries from TJ Perenara, Scott Barrett and Ben Smith began to test the mental resolve of this Irish side.
Schmidt’s men regrouped and sealed the historic triumph in the ‘Windy City’ with a late try from Henshaw and a successful conversion from Joey Carbery.
The result ended New Zealand’s 18 game winning streak. It was also Ireland’s highest ever points total against the All Blacks. New Zealand don’t get beaten too often so when they do, it comes as a bitter pill to swallow.
Ireland will definitely be without the services of flanker Jordi Murphy when they renew acquaintances with the All Blacks this Saturday evening. The Leinster player suffered an injury to his left knee in the first half of the historic win in Chicago and it was later confirmed that he had suffered anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) damage, which will rule him out of action for between six and nine months.
Luckily enough, Ireland have two able replacements in Munster’s Peter O’Mahony and Leinster star Sean O’Brien, who both got game time in the facile 31 point victory over Canada last Saturday.
New Zealand were given a boost ahead of the trip to Dublin with Brodie Retallick’s second half appearance in the 68-10 rout of Italy last weekend leaving him poised for a return to the starting line-up.
Retallick could be joined in the second row by Sam Whitelock. The pair are well accustomed to each other as they were second row partners when New Zealand defeated Australia to reclaim the World Cup in October 2015.
If Ireland are to come out on top again against Steve Hansen’s world champions, they’ll need to stop winger Julian Savea. Savea scored 45 tries for New Zealand in the space of four years and the winger will aim to use his powerful presence to break down the Ireland defence.
It’s unlikely that this game will resemble the Chicago fixture in terms of such high-scoring and free-flowing rugby. New Zealand will want to reaffirm their status as the best international rugby team by whatever means necessary.
This is bound to be another physically demanding clash and it just appears that New Zealand have the greater strength in depth to emerge on top after a gruelling 80 minutes of action.
Guinness Series Ireland v New Zealand Aviva Stadium Saturday, 19th November