All Black magic derails Ireland’s Rugby World Cup dream

Ireland v New Zealand: Courage comes in many forms and has rarely been personified better than by astonishing 37-phase attack in overtime

The crestfallen Irish squad trundled around the pitch with their socks rolled down in a lap of appreciation towards the estimated 40-50,000 Irish supporters, whose presence was both a comfort and a source of heartbreak at the same time. That, and not doing it for Johnny.

The latest battalion of the Green Army had invaded Paris and stayed in the Stade de France long after the final whistle. Never has there been a more deflating defeat, even in Ireland’s mounting catalogue of Rugby World Cup pain, but there was no shame in this one.

The Fields had drowned out the haka and the Irish crowd were in full voice initially, but after a nervy start during which the All Blacks led from the eighth minute, the roars never ceased but the singing was muted. It was as if the edginess in the stands transmitted itself to the Irish performance, or vice versa.

Compared to any of its predecessors, this team had soared to unprecedented heights over the last two years. Yet regrets, they’ll have plenty. This was not the night for a 75-85 per cent performance, not when the All Blacks were inspired to produce their best display of an inconsistent four years under Ian Foster.


Ardie Savea — a try, vital turnovers, carries beyond contact, tackles and Sam Cane, 21 tackles, two of them dominant — were outstanding. The All Blacks tailored their game to counter Ireland, attacked more narrowly, kicked way more and made 229 tackles, the second highest in this world cup.

Ireland lost three lineouts or had turnovers as a result of scrappy ball, their scrum was pinged three times, their handling was a little more imprecise than usual and they lost 11 turnovers to four by New Zealand, who were also comparatively ruthless.

Ireland had 14 red zone entries to six by the All Blacks but only converted these into 21 points — an average of 1.5 points per entry compared to 2.94 previously in this tournament, and 4.35 by the All Blacks.

Albeit Ireland had to work harder for their scores, some of the attacking play was brilliant. They had way more possession, territory, passes, carries, metres, defenders beaten, made seven clean breaks to five and even had made 13 dominant tackles to 10. With a different referee than Wayne Barnes, the more attacking team might have been better rewarded.

That said, 7-3 was a poor return during two All Blacks’ yellow cards. With Aaron Smith still in the bin, Hugo Keenan floated a long pass to James Lowe when passing through the hands would probably have made the overlap tell.

Yet the sheer character of this Irish team could not be faulted either. Rocked by that early 13-0 deficit, twice they came roaring back to within a point, responding to each of the All Blacks’ three tries with three of their own, and would have gone in front for the first time in the 72nd minute had Jordie Barrett not brilliantly prevented Ronan Kelleher scoring off a driven maul.

Courage comes in many forms and has rarely been personified better than by that astonishing 37-phase attack deep into overtime, demonstrating reserves of will, strength and skill to keep pushing the passes, to keep clearing out and to keep probing.

So much analysis is scoreboard-induced. Had Garry Ringrose broken through or Ireland found the edge in that last drive, we’d be hailing the greatest Irish victory of all time, with the brilliant Sexton as orchestrator in chief. Not the least astonishing statistic is that he made 73 passes, compared to 21 by Richie Mo’unga. For a 38-year-old to play as well as he did was phenomenal. Anybody who didn’t see that doesn’t know whether a rugby ball is stuffed or pumped.

Instead, one of the abiding memories of the evening is of Luca Sexton telling his father: “You’re still the best, Dad.”

It’s a feeling felt by his teammates.

Amid the sheer rawness of this loss, it was clear that the players’ disappointment was exacerbated by not having kept the dream alive for the astonishing support from the Irish public and also for their captain.

Jack Conan was close to tears as he somehow held his thoughts together after the most devastating defeat of his career.

“I’ve lost a lot of big games in my career to this date but this is definitely the toughest one to take, to just have not done right by the effort that has been put in the last few years by the coaching staff, the players, and the travelling support.

“People have made the effort to come over here and it is incredible. It’s not lost on us, how much sacrifice people made to come and support us. Whether you were here or at home, it has meant the world to all of us and it’s something we spoke about a lot.

“We’re genuinely just gutted that we couldn’t do it for them and that we couldn’t do it for Johnny, someone who deserves so much for the sacrifices he has made, for the player he is and for the man he is, for the leader that he is.

“He has been everything that has been good about Irish rugby for nearly two decades and to not give him the send-off that he deserves is probably the hardest thing to take.

“He is how we measure ourselves, he is the standards setter, he is the leader, he is an unbelievably good bloke on and off the pitch. It might be lost on people at times but he cares more than any player I have ever met in any sport I have seen.

“He cares so much and he sacrifices so much and it doesn’t feel right that we couldn’t do it for him. In my eyes, he is the greatest Irish player of all time for what he has done and it’s been an incredible joy of mine to play with him for so many years and to have been in so many dressing-rooms with him. It’s just not right that we couldn’t do better for him.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times