Sense of destiny was there from the minute Irish crowd challenged the haka
First 35 minutes was key as Ireland came out and tore into the All Blacks from the off
Thirty-five minutes in, Ireland deep in the New Zealand 22 and Kieran Read is genuflecting on one knee as a medic tests his shoulder and arm. The big man is grimacing and breathing hard. That’s what happens when you wallop into Peter O’Mahony. Read is thinking fast, too. The aristocracy are in a game here.
Around the shadows of the stadium, a low rumble rises into something close to impatience. The Irish supporters want the New Zealanders to get on with it. For the previous half hour, they have watched their team take this game to New Zealand. They’ve seen Cian Healy and CJ Stander crash home under the posts only for Ardie Savea to hold the ball up.
A minute later, Rob Kearney, coming late onto an opportunistic cross-kick by Jonny Sexton – Wayne Barnes has already signalled an Irish penalty from the scrum – and only a knock-on as he tries to control the ball cancels what might have been the opening try. But the crowd are hardwired into every play on this evening.
Rory Best spoke about it during the week. It can be lip service, of course, the captain doffing his cap to the paying supporters on the week of a big international but Lansdowne games have always responded to the voltage of its patrons, and on Saturday night, as mighty New Zealand wobbled, was one of those occasions.
The previous half hour had done much to answer the questions that floated through the rugby citadels of Ireland throughout the week. Over the past few seasons, Ireland had moved from the darker recesses of the New Zealand rugby imagination to materialise as substantial challengers to their crown: the number two ranked team in the world.
It was a statistic repeated over and over on the radio and on the television and in print all week; it became a mantra, a source of comfort. But what would it mean here, as the ball travelled through the air seconds after seven o’clock and every pub in the country was jam-packed? The truth was: nobody had a clue.
But the people who got tickets for this had decided to make themselves heard. In the hours before kick-off, you got a sense of what this old rugby suburb could bring to a marquee Rugby World Cup match.
On a sublime November night, the place has rarely looked more gorgeous. It may only have been a challenge: a deep-autumn ‘friendly’ to bookend rugby union’s already manic calendar schedule. But it felt like something weightier. It felt like a key hour in the Joe Schmidt era. And if felt, remember too, like a chance to witness something that no rugby supporter has in a hundred plus years: a win over those black shirts on Irish soil.
So when TJ Perenara stepped into New Zealand’s arrowhead haka formation to lead the chant, it was the Irish crowd that responded. The haka is both a sacred part of New Zealand’s rugby culture and a brilliantly choreographed television show. The opposing team has little option but to stand and observe. And for the moments when Perenara’s was the only voice involved, the stadium fell quiet. It was then that Irish crowd rose, filling the silence with a huge, primal roar of: Ireland. It wasn’t disrespectful but it was reflective of a new attitude; a boldness and ambition that previous New Zealand teams maybe did not encounter on visits to this ground.
You think about the many years of heavy defeats, of shaking heads in wonder at the speed and vision and pace and imagination with which New Zealand teams liked to play rugby and that’s why the first hour here was such a glory.
New Zealand became mired in a sticky web of their countryman’s design. It was the essence of Schmidt in efficiency and execution. Just two penalties conceded over the first hour (and one coming which Beauden Barrett translated into a drop goal to make it 6-6, just his second ever drop goal in a black shirt).
The world champions couldn’t get a foothold in the game. After Jacob Stockdale raced onto Bundee Aki’s flat pass and fearlessly chipped the ball over four black shirts and Damian McKenzie, the lighting fullback, everyone in the stadium knew what was going to happen. Stockdale makes these bursts of devastating innovative finishing looks absurdly easy. Twelve tries in 14 outings: it’s fantasy stuff – 14-6 and a hush for Sexton’s conversion and then Ireland push 10 points clear with 30 minutes left to play.
Rare country now as Kieran Marmion and then O’Mahony, limping off minutes after materialising on Ben Smith’s wing and somehow getting his hands on the ball with a New Zealand try looming, get huge ovations from the crowd. The seconds on the clock are travelling slowly: Barrett nails a penalty with 11 minutes remaining and its back to the familiar place: the All Blacks within a score, pressing, trusting that the late charge will come.
But Schmidt’s Ireland team believes in hard borders only. In other games, the pure inventiveness of Beauden Barrett would have breached walls. Not here. There was a moment, 74 and the seconds going slowly when Read found himself covering Ben Smith, who had the ball in his 22 and Stockdale and Sexton coming at him with interest. Sexton punched the air with venom after they dragged him over the touch line.
You can just about hear the curses and salutes in breakfast time New Zealand as they watch on television. They’d hate it but they’d love it too: the bit of dog, the bit of upstart-ery. He trotted off with three to go, Sexton, shaking his head, muttering a bit, holding an injury and taking whatever shamanistic quality he has about him. Sexton contains a force-field or resolve and organisation. The crowd rose as one to acknowledge that. It was a moment in time.
One try in it. Just no mistakes. No black magic. A mental last minute, then The Fields of Athenry ringing out as New Zealand run the ball through 15 phases, probing, passing; looking for a gap that will not materialise; not on this night, not against this team. History. The All Blacks felled. The door closes on 100 years and the sun rises in the east.