After contesting the most exciting Test of 2013, none of the players were celebrating.
Neither fans nor commentators could make sense of the game, that was outstanding from the brilliant start to the breath-taking finish.
With 30 seconds on the clock, Ireland was attacking well into the All Black half; they were ahead 22-17, and victory was almost guaranteed.
In fact, seven minutes earlier, Ireland could have sealed the match. They had been awarded a penalty. The easy conversion would have secured the first victory over the All Blacks in over a century of competition.
If successful, the All Blacks would have needed to score a converted try, then to score again, which would have been impossible. Irish flyhalf Jonathan Sexton took an age preparing. The Dublin crowd respects kickers by staying silent—but the tension had become audible.
Ireland deserved the victory. They had been magnificent. Sexton remained motionless—for too long, surely? Finally, he kicked, with the ball slicing the right upright. Just missing.
All Black captain Richie McCaw said he felt a resoluteness come over his side at that moment. An unlikely victory was still possible, after being 19-nil down after 19 minutes, through brilliant tries to Connor Murray, Rory Best and Rob Kearney.
But McCaw’s belief seemed groundless, with 30 seconds remaining on the clock. Ireland had possession, well inside the All Black half. Ireland simply had to maintain possession, to win. In the crowd, the beautiful strains of “The Fields of Athenry” had turned into a roar.
Then, as Ireland mauled the ball, referee Nigel Owens awarded a penalty to NZ. Seizing the moment, McCaw tapped quickly, but was called back by the referee.
With time up, Centre Ben Smith re-tapped the penalty. The All Blacks had only one play to snatch victory, by scoring a converted try from 60 metres out, with the Irish defence set.
Ireland captain Paul O’Connell said he was confident, even after the penalty, because of “the way we were defending”.
What followed was two minutes and 12 phases of high-intensity, All Black brilliance, that finally stretched the tiring Ireland defence, allowing replacement centre Ryan Crotty to cross for a try, which levelled the scores 22-all.
Such was the speed and precision of the final back-play, two passes were reviewed and found to be legal.
The Ireland fans could not remain silent as Aaron Cruden prepared to take the conversion that would give the All Blacks victory. The 22-all score had shattered the Ireland players and fans – a defeat would be devastating.
Cruden missed the kick. The 22-all draw left everybody dazed. But only for a moment. Referee Owens ruled that Ireland defenders had charged early, giving Cruden a second conversion-attempt, which was successful, giving the All Blacks their 14th victory from 14 Tests this year.
They are the first Test team of the professional-era to go unbeaten in a season.
“I was pretty nervous, to be honest,” Cruden said, after the game.
The mood of the Ireland fans could be summed up by bookmaking company BragBet, which decided to pay out on 10-to-1 bets on an Ireland victory.
“Irish rugby fans up and down the country were robbed by that injury time try,” CEO Phil Riordan said.
“So we thought we would lighten the mood, pay out the punters and show our solidarity with the Irish team after such a fantastic display.”
The future of Ireland rugby lies in a marriage of that loyalty and the standards of Star Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien, who said he was angry at himself and his team-mates.
He said they should have worked harder and been more disciplined in the last two minutes of the game.
The Test was one of the quickest games he had played in, but that was no excuse—“They [NZ] weren’t tired, were they?” he said.
There were two fundamental differences between the sides. The All Blacks’ fitness lasted two minutes longer than Ireland’s; the All Blacks played to win, while Ireland ended up protecting a lead.
Ireland’s brilliance—and despondency—tempered the All Blacks celebration.
“Very lucky, very lucky I think,” said a fatigued All Blacks half-back Aaron Smith after the game. “The Irish were awesome tonight …” He shook his head, became silent, then added, “Oh man … I’m wrecked.”
Prop Wyatt Crocket said: “I don’t really know what to think, to be honest. Just relief more than anything, that we managed to get the win.”
How did this Test compare with this year’s brilliant Final of the Rugby Championship against South Africa?
English rugby writer Eddie Butler said: “In Johannesburg they [NZ] swept imperiously to a title; in Dublin they could barely raise an arm in triumph.”
Peter Lalanabaravi is a rugby writer with over 30 years experience.