Wellington belongs to Ireland as travelling support revels in history

Fans, players and journalists alike turn windy Welly green to mark one of Irish rugby’s greatest achievements

It had to be done after a first ever win over the All Blacks in New Zealand, it sure as hell had to be done after Ireland joined an elite group to win a test series on the most revered rugby soil of them all.

So yes, it was an almighty night in Wellington after beating the almighty All Blacks 2-1.

Barry Murphy, co-owner of the D4 with his brother Dermot, said that the day and the night of the Lions’ second Test win in Wellington in 2017 had been the biggest they’d ever known. This, he said, was even bigger.

There had been queues outside during the day and after the match. The post-match party was more of a home venue, with pockets of black among the singing, dancing sea of green. U2, The Cranberries, The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York and, of course, The Fields of Athenry were sung with gusto.

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After the All Blacks supporters had vacated Sky Stadium, the scale of the Irish invasion became more apparent as they assembled around the pitch as the Irish team conducted a slow lap of honour. For once it didn’t rain in windy Welly either.

As well as ex-pats and those who travelled from Ireland - Ivan Heffernan witnessing history on successive weekends was some compensation for scarcely being able to see his son David play - there was mass invasion from foreign ports of call, particularly Sydney. But had the bar not closed at 3pm they might still be all there.

The only pity was that the media gang of eight had become a five-three split due to work and travel plans.

Barry said he’d be walking around Wellington with his chest puffed out for days, and weeks, and even months to come. For one Irishman, who has been living in New Zealand for 11 years, this had been a long time coming, all the more so after the 60-0 defeat in Hamilton a decade ago completed the standard All Blacks 3-0 series whitewash.

The irony is that the rugby ties between the two countries have never been more pronounced and that Ireland’s emergence from the doldrums of a decade ago to win five of the last eight matches in this ‘great rivalry’ are partly due to the Kiwi-ification of Irish rugby.

Much has been made from the outset of this tour that the Irish team contained four Kiwis in their ranks, although this is taking liberties with Joey Carbery especially, all the more so when one considers how the All Blacks liberally dip into the pacific islands as feeder countries with ready-made prototypes for modern rugby.

Carbery also had the least imprint on this one, although for the third time against the All Blacks he saw the game out. It says something about his nerve that after replacing Johnny Sexton is first act was to pick off a pass by Folau Fakatava. In that moment the thousands of Irish fans could breathe again. The vocal backdrop to the endgame was chants of “Ire-land, Ire-land.” It sounded good.

Bundee Aki, with his low centre of gravity, was an unstoppable force. Beauden Barrett kept kicking restarts to him, and he kept catching them and running them back. And his try assist yet again gave the lie to the notion that he is not a good passer or creator.

James Lowe reserved his best performance for last. His left boot was used more than any other Irish player, eight times, and he was desperately unlucky not to be awarded one of the more astonishing 50/22s of them all, albeit it was one of the key moments of that first half as Peter O’Mahony’s lineout defensive work effectively made into one.

For Jamison Gibson-Park, the least heralded of the three Kiwi residency-qualified players which the Irish system has turned into jewels, this win on the ground where he was a back-up contributor to a Hurricanes Super Rugby title - was particularly sweet.

“The best by far,” he admitted. “I mean I have had some special moments over my career and this was definitely the best, it was pretty surreal when the final whistle went; obviously as part of a 2016 squad winning Super Rugby here – I didn’t play a massive part that year so I suppose that has a little bit to do with it as well – but it was a pretty amazing feeling.

“We are obviously unbelievably grateful for the support from the people back in Ireland and even for those in the crowd today and over the last couple of weeks. It has just been really amazing to see Irish people walking the streets around Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington, knowing they’re here to support us. I hope they are proud of us.”

“We obviously came down here with the intention to win; it has been a bit of a slog, we have had a tricky time, a couple of midweek games, it is a testament to everyone involved, not just the players but the management that we did what we did. It is hard to put into words how awesome it is. It is just a hell of a buzz man, I am really stoked.”

“I know a couple of lads in that team; I know how they are feeling but in the same breath we work incredibly hard and we deserved the series win, and it is a pretty unbelievable feeling; we have to enjoy these moments.

His decision to relocate to Leinster and Ireland has certainly been fully vindicated.

“Yes, absolutely but it is not about me, it is about the team, we are delighted with the result. I never dreamed of a day like this to be honest. I was rooming with Garry Ringrose and he said to me, ‘when was the last time you played here?’ and I was like, ‘June 2016,’ and he said to me, ‘could you have ever dreamed of being back here in six years playing for Ireland?’ I said no obviously. It has been one heck of a journey and one to be proud of. My family were here too.”

In all of this, he acknowledged his debt to Farrell.

“Yeah, massive man. I qualified after three years and it wasn’t until four years that I was in the team and that was when Andy was in charge, he has put his faith in me and obviously I am very grateful for that. It is about the team, man. They have probably got a few better individuals than us but we saw throughout we can be the better team.”

What else did Faz do to fuel your self-belief?

“He is a great people manager, he says the right things, fills you with confidence. There are a lot of experienced lads around as well who do the same. He has always been unbelievable (to me) but there is a big squad of coaches and players who have also helped.”

Gibson-Park has become the heartbeat of Andy Farrell’s Ireland, and while he had a ropey ten minutes in that three-try salvo by the All Blacks, he’s been composed and vital in the two ensuing wins. Fair play to him. For him, and thousands of others, this was a once in a lifetime day.

For one glorious night, Wellington belonged to Ireland.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times