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Gordon D’Arcy: My part in the greatest Irish victory that never was

Schmidt’s side have grown since and Chicago 2016 changed the narrative for Irish rugby

Look at the All Blacks bench from Sunday, November 24th, 2013. Today’s best player in the world, Beauden Barrett, arrived to cause serious damage.

I still feel the bruises from that last attack to prove the Franks brothers made an impact and we'll always remember Dane Coles' offload to Ryan Crotty. Every man a sub, denying the greatest Irish victory that never was.

The ending sits forever beside the 1991 World Cup quarter-final loss to Australia. Instantly, we knew what had slipped through our fingers.

I've cried three times on a rugby pitch. Once due to concussion and having no idea what was going on. Then there were tears of joy at Murrayfield in May 2009 when Leinster finally captured the Heineken Cup and thirdly it was this bloody agonising yet important experience for Irish rugby.

They were shed privately, in the palm of my hands, knowing I'd probably never play New Zealand ever again, knowing the last chance to beat them had past me by. Walking off, despondent and miserable, Crotty put an arm around me: "Geez mate, how long did it take to grow that beard!?"

Only a game, kids.

But what a game.

To outsiders it seemed like the start of something special – the Schmidt era – and that week probably was the beginning of these heady days for Munster, Connacht and Ulster players, but the lads who’d played under Joe since 2010, winning three European trophies, were already tuned to his ways.

To us, this was not a Joe Schmidt team performance. We weren't there yet. This was built on belief and passion not detail and accuracy.

On the Friday morning in Carton House I grumpily responded to a circle of media wondering if Ireland can beat New Zealand.

“I don’t mean this to come across badly, I think that’s what separates you guys on that side and us guys on this side. Performing well just isn’t good enough for us. If it was, I wouldn’t be here. I say that as humbly as possible but that’s what drives us. To be the best and to win.”

We had been trimmed by Australia the week before so nobody in the room believed me. The line of questioning really got my back up. The answers were shorter than usual! Marking Ma’a Nonu was framed as a daunting task.

System errors

“We’re all the same height below the ankles,” I replied. “I know I can defend him. Shy away from that physical confrontation and he will absolutely bully you.”

First opportunity I hit Nonu at a 20 degree angle on the quads with my left shoulder, right arm sweeping both feet and because he is going hard to break my tackle there is no chance of an offload. That's the textbook technique to felling a bigger man. Use their size against them. Taking him front on, like Owen Farrell's Rugby League version of textbook on Andre Esterhuizen, and you run the risk of punishment. Or not.

The players were ready for New Zealand. The rest of the country caught up after the Kearney try, Dave dislodging the ball from Israel Dagg’s grip and Rob running the length, made it 19-0 inside 20 minutes but the fluidity of Schmidt’s Ireland was another four, five years off.

There were multiple system errors but mostly loose passing, ball to ground, let us down on the day. The video analysis of the game, while excruciating in parts, definitely contributed to what we achieved in Paris four months later.

I can't remember our specific tactics but our intent was to attack them from kick-off. Our line speed in defence was incredible in those opening 40 minutes. They couldn't get a foothold in the match until Aaron Cruden's clever grubber put Julian Savea over.

New Zealand prefer not to flood numbers into the breakdown. We forced them to commit at least three bodies and by embracing the pace they like to play at we matched them in all areas. Richie McCaw was hit early and at every opportunity. I dropped the shoulder on him leading to Conor Murray’s try. It was a cheap shot but he ended up out of position for Seánie’s break up the middle.

There was a proper edge and Nigel Owens let that play out. It kept the tone of the contest really competitive.

Half-time should have felt strange as we were beating the world champions 22-7 but two years previously many of us had been on the flip side of that scoreboard, the final against Northampton in Cardiff, so calmness was the overriding emotion.

Paul O’Connell spoke. Brian O’Driscoll spoke.

Now, McCaw and the All Blacks reacted as they always do. He and them finished with a ferocity and composure that remains the benchmark for winning Test matches.

But McCaw wasn’t the difference for me. It was their bench; it was Barrett’s three carries when arriving on 65 minutes as each sapped energy from our already tightening limbs.

A breakdown

This was one of my last really good individual performances for Ireland. I did my job, carried well, defended well, blocked a load of offloads and, having lost the 12 jersey to Luke Marshall the previous week, I did enough to keep the partnership with O'Driscoll intact into his last Six Nations.

Brian only lasted 52 minutes due to a collision with Brodie Retallick but Luke Fitzgerald arrived to prove his quality by hitting the pace seamlessly.

And yet, this wasn’t a Joe Schmidt team performance because there was a breakdown in the system. Trust in each other is the cornerstone of any successful team.

For 79 minutes we trusted each other to make individual tackles and forced New Zealand to contest for every ball with the numbers they seem to always have in wide channels.

They wore us down like their 2018 version did the Springboks in South Africa recently.

What will always melt my mind from that day was we tried to play keep-ball from the 76th minute. We got to 79:31 when Nigel blew his whistle for an All Black penalty near their 10 metre line.

Aaron Smith tapped and attacked. On 79:55 Kieran Read carried over halfway (he's more important than ever). What's different today from 2013 is everybody in a green jersey automatically does their preordained job. The system is ingrained.

On 80:37 Read's inside offload put Ben Smith a metre from our 22.

Seánie [O’Brien] and Rob [Kearney] brought him down. Nonu picked and attacked the short side, breaking a tackle and offloading for Crotty. They seemed certain to score wide right but we stopped them. Aaron Smith flung the ball into midfield, it bobbled along the ground before Nonu regathered and ran at his opposite number.

Do your job. Slap the fend, grip the hips and swing him to ground. Up and on the ball. One Franks brother, two Franks brothers left me emptied under a heap of bodies. Cruden whipped a lovely flat pass and the rest is history.

We were devastated but the performance validated our efforts as a group during that November series. Lessons from those last two minutes and other inaccuracies were definitely learned.

Composure won New Zealand the Test match. That and knowing how to squeeze sides has won Ireland three Six Nations since. A collective self-belief now exists that was perhaps born out of the actions of those wearing green jerseys five years ago.

Lasting belief

It remains one of the best ever Ireland performances. For 79 minutes.

Later that season we played for 80-plus in Paris when Dave Kearney made the tackle to stop France and win the Six Nations. A similar tackle was needed to beat New Zealand.

Chicago in 2016 changed the narrative for Irish rugby. There is lasting belief now. Read Jordan Larmour's comments about aiming to win the World Cup. The new generation of Irish players have beaten New Zealand at underage, led by James Ryan, while these touring All Blacks are different from the previous generation.

In November 2013 we buckled under pressure at the crucial moment

McCaw and Dan Carter, the best players to ever play the game, are gone. In the same time period the All Blacks have had to rebuild in key positions like centre and backrow (albeit with the use of stunning individual talent).

For Ireland Kearney, Sexton, Murray, Healy, McGrath, Best, Cronin, Toner, O'Mahony and O'Brien remain while Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Crotty, Retallick, Whitelock, Owen Franks and Read return in black.

In November 2013 we buckled under pressure at the crucial moment. This Ireland team has not faced that challenge, not yet, but Argentina and New Zealand on successive Saturdays will ask sterner questions than recent Northern Hemisphere opposition.

What I remember about five years ago was our confidence remained intact despite the defeat. I was distraught until Crotty made me smile. We ended up having a great night in the Shelbourne hotel when Jono Sexton turns to me: "Double or quits?"

What?

“The beard.”

Jono made a bet, whether I agreed or not, that if we beat the All Blacks he got to shave my ridiculously hairy face.

“Double of quits if we win the Six Nations?”

The beard is long gone but Ireland under Schmidt keep growing.