Ireland withstand second half comeback to seal historic series win on New Zealand soil

Tries from Josh van der Flier, Hugo Keenan, Robbie Henshaw and Rob Herring secure a 10-point win in Wellington

New Zealand 22 Ireland 32

Hail the Ireland tourists of 2022. The history makers.

Having become just the fifth country, and sixth team including the Lions, to beat the All Blacks on New Zealand soil, Ireland joined an equally select group in winning a series in New Zealand, something that only the Lions, South Africa, France and Australia have ever done.

To put this staggering achievement into context, perhaps the high watermark in the history of Irish rugby, the All Blacks have hosted circa 62 series, and this is only the fifth time they have lost one, and the first since France in 1994, making it the first away series win over the almighty All Blacks of the professional age and, quite possibly, the last ever as well. Wow.

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What’s more, Johnny Sexton and his team did so by coming from one-nil down in the series with two deserved wins, reserving their best until last as Andy Farrell had hoped in this pulsating decider.

Their lineout magnificent, they ate into the New Zealand throw and had the home team in tatters during a near-perfect first half, with the excellence of their defence and kick-chase, which neutered the All Blacks’ main threat, namely their counterattack.

Ireland’s scrum, breakdown, work-rate, energy – epitomised by the outstanding Tadhg Beirne and the tireless Josh van der Flier again – and attack were off the charts as they led 22-3 at the break, with one maul try and two superbly worked tries by the assured Hugo Keenan, who oozed composure at the back, and Robbie Henshaw.

The All Blacks stormed back to make it a one-score game, but Ireland held firm and, with a strong impact by their bench, stemmed the All Blacks’ fervour with their second lineout maul try, with an excellent finish by Rob Herring. Effectively winning it a second time made the victory even more meritorious.

In truth a host of players had fine games, with Bundee Aki and James Lowe revelling in their place in Irish rugby history, while Sexton was again immense, keeping his dialogue with Wayne Barnes to a minimum.

Sexton mastermind Ireland’s attack, their excellent launch plays causing the All Blacks a multitude of problems, and much of their defence.

The frontrowers, Dan Sheehan especially, and backrow Caelan Doris also had monster games alongside the towering presence of James Ryan at the lineout. Jamison Gibson-Park was his livewire self in covering a mammoth amount of ground, Henshaw was magnificent in renewing his old Connacht midfield axis with Aki, and Mack Hansen never flinched when targeted in the air and brought his usual positive intent throughout.

As suspected in the 24 hours before kick-off, Scott Barrett was ruled out due to a knee injury. Akira Ioane was promoted from the bench to the backrow with the Chiefs lock Tupou Vaa’i called up to the bench. Despite being bound for French champions Montpellier in time for the Top 14 2022-23 season, thus ruling him out of the World Cup, Karl Tu’inukuafe also replaced Aidan Ross on the bench.

Conditions for a game in windy Welly were unusually becalmed; dry and relatively still with the pitch a picture in the oval-shaped Sky Stadium. Once again there was a good smattering of green-speckled fans among the sea of black.

As in the first two Tests, after the anthems the Irish players immediately formed a circle in response to the haka and, far more importantly, again scored an early try for the third Test in a row.

Quickly into their attacking rhythm, Doris bumped Nepo Laulala to pierce the black line and from the recycle, Keenan and Henshaw linked with Peter O’Mahony on the edge, but his pass for Lowe was picked off by a retreating Beauden Barrett.

Even so, when Sam Cane tackled Van der Flier off the ball (spotted by the TMO) Sexton turned down the shot at goal to go to the corner. From O’Mahony’s unchallenged take the All Blacks pack stayed on the ground and after the initial counter-drive, the Irish pack regrouped and surged forward for Van der Flier to score.

Sexton missed the conversion and both Hansen and Keenan had to be strong under Beauden Barrett’s high bombs, Van der Flier forced a knock-on by Ardie Savea – one of many handling errors by the All Blacks – Keenan covered the ground quickly in dealing with a Jordan Barrett kick infield and the latter, his left leg heavily strapped after receiving treatment in the warm-up, missed a straight-ish 48-metre penalty.

A pivotal moment was a monster touchfinder with no room to play with along the left touchline by Lowe which was inches short of being a 50/22. It didn’t matter, as excellent work by O’Mahony and then his team-mates forced a turnover.

The All Blacks were at their most dangerous when counterattacking, but even then Ireland’s kick and chase corralled them. When David Havili did engineer a 50/22, it led to Sexton being penalised for not rolling away, and Jordie Barrett tapped over the close-range penalty.

It was but an interruption.

Van der Flier won an important turnover on the ground outside the Irish 22, and Ireland went up the line. A superbly choreographed and big drive saw Hansen come across his wing for Henshaw to hit Lowe on the edge. Aki carried hard up the middle, and Ireland rewound to the left, where Hansen and Henshaw again linked with Lowe, whose no-look inside pass was brilliantly finished by Keenan.

Sexton nailed a brilliant touchline conversion and tagged on a 45-metre penalty amid a din of boos and jeers. It came after another long Lowe punt and good chase, whereupon Beauden Barrett cleaned out beyond the ruck, something the All Blacks were pinged for three times last week. Don’t they learn?

Ireland weren’t done. Sexton wrapped for Keenan to find grass in behind and when Laulala went for a risky offload when tackled by Porter, it travelled forward. Keenan carried off the scrum, then Doris made good yardage in traffic and Ireland’s shape off third phase was perfect as Sheehan and Sexton moved the ball on for Aki to break the line, with Beauden Barrett all at sea, to put Henshaw over with a perfect right to left pass.

Sexton converted to make it 22-3, and a crooked throw by Codie Taylor and solid Irish scrum closed out a dream first period for the away side and fans.

The All Blacks were back on the pitch minutes before the Irish team and officials and responded with thunderous intent. There was a new energy to the carries, notably by Savea, Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett. Sevu Reece’s wicked footwork took them close to the line when playing with a second penalty advantage before Savea reached out for the line with a fine finish. Suddenly it was 10-22 and the All Blacks were alive.

The momentum lurched even more strongly towards the All Blacks when Andrew Porter was binned for a head-on-head hit on Brodie Retallick – the crowd howling for a red card. But Barnes reasoned: “He’s absorbing the tackle”, and the TMO concurred, the referee also informing Cane it was “not an offensive tackle, so a different degree of danger” to Angus Tava’ao’s red card from last week.

Even so, the All Blacks went to the corner, again building up a head of steam as they carried hard in field off the drive before Akira Ioane bumped Sheehan and stepped both Van der Flier and Hansen in turn.

Now it was a five-point game, and Ireland had another eight minutes with 14 men. Helpfully for Ireland, Sam Whitelock knocked on, and Cane stayed on the ball after the tackle, Sexton eating up the clock with the ensuing three-pointer.

Beirne won another jackal penalty, and Sexton ran down the clock some more before his penalty from halfway hit the bar. When the Irish captain went to the air the ball was brilliantly reclaimed on the deck by Aaron Smith, and from the recycle Savea peeled away from the ruck and slipped an inside ball that Will Jordan steamed on to. Breaking clear, all Sexton could do was guide him toward the touchline for a stunning 80-metre finish, and Jordie Barrett just missed the touchline conversion.

Both sides were by now emptying their benches, and after a big Lowe carry and offload, Aki was only just stopped short of the line. Savea came round the side from an offside position and Sexton tapped into the corner. Herring hit O’Mahony and it seemed like the hooker might have broken away from the following maul too soon, but he powered through three tackles and, fully extended, touched down on the line, Sexton adding another fabulous conversion to make it a 10-point lead.

In desperation, the All Blacks stretched Ireland to breaking point, but Beirne won a couple more turnovers, the first after the Cian Healy-Herring-Finlay Bealham replacement frontrow had a big defensive scrum, and earned a third with a counter-ruck before Healy pounced on the loose ball.

O’Mahony, Aki and finally Sexton could last no longer, but the die was cast when Joey Carbery pilfered an intercept with his first touch. There were even some dancing feet by Keith Earls as Ireland sought another try before a Rieko Ioane knock-on prompted the home fans’ exodus and early celebrations on the touchline.

When Carbery kicked the ball dead with the last act of the game and the series, it prompted a pitch invasion by the remainder of the 70-strong travelling party.

The thousands in green came to the front of all four stands for the lap of honour. Maybe the win of all Irish wins.

SCORING SEQUENCE 4 mins: van der Flier try 0-5; 23: J Barrett pen 3-5; 28: Keenan try, Sexton 3-12; 32: Sexton pen 3-15; 37: Henshaw try, Sexton con 3-22; (half-time 3-22); 44: Savea try, J Barrett con 10-22; 52: A Ioane try, J Barrett con 17-22; 54: Sexton pen 17-25; 60: Jordan try 22-25; 65: Herring try, Sexton con 22-32.

NEW ZEALAND: Jordie Barrett; Will Jordan, Reiko Ioane, David Havili, Sevu Reece; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; George Bower, Codie Taylor, Nepo Laulala; Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock; Akira Ioane, Sam Cane (capt), Ardie Savea.

Replacements: Ofa Tu’ungafasi for Laulala (half-time), Laulala for Tu’ungafasi (45 mins), Tupou Vaa’i for Retallick (51), Dane Coles for Taylor, Folau Fakatava for Smith, Richie Mo’unga for Reece (all 61), Dalton Papalii for Cane (64), Karl Tu’inukuafe for Bower (71), Roger Tuivasa-Sheck for R Ioane (70).

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Cian Healy for Van der Flier (54 mins) and for Porter (70), Rob Herring for Sheehan (61), Jack Conan for O’Mahony (66), Keith Earls for Aki (69), Finlay Bealham for Furlong (70), Conor Murray for Gibson-Park (71), Kieran Treadwell for Beirne, Joey Carbery for Sexton (both 76).

Sinbinned: Porter (51-61 mins).

Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times