The hits of history do not stop succeeding for Ireland. The first victory in New Zealand last week was followed by another first in Wellington: a second successive victory over the All Blacks to win the Test series against rugby’s most formidable nation for the first time since the start of the matches between the two in 1905.
“They’re a special group,” Ireland coach Andy Farrell said amid jubilant scenes. “It’s probably the hardest thing to do in world rugby. We said it would be the start of our World Cup year but, I don’t know, it’s probably a bit bigger than that.
It is a testament to his bloody, grounded, yet clearly inspiring leadership of Ireland that his review of this historic achievement has been placed in the context of what’s next. “It is clear how much the belief [we have] and it starts with the main man, Faz,” Ireland captain Johnny Sexton said. “It’s to his credit, really.”
For all of Farrell’s actions before, it was those on the pitch who had to seize this moment, and for the third week of the rebound, Ireland hit the ground running early. Josh van der Flier’s flop after a lineout after three minutes set the tone for a first half that shows all that is good about Ireland.
An organized and dynamic attack from multiple phases, combined with power and trickery in tight situations, limited New Zealand to a Jordie Barrett penalty and created a pair of extra tries before the break. The first came from a delightful missed pass finding Hugo Keenan grounded wide on the left, before two quick phases behind a scrum in the All Blacks 22 allowed Bundee Aki to feed Robbie Henshaw, who galloped unopposed. Sexton’s additional conversions allowed the captain to lead his side from the field 22-3.
As scrappy and nervous as the home side were in the opening 40, that was quickly snuffed out early in the second, especially under the boot of Ardie Savea. The New Zealand No.8 took responsibility for getting his team back in the game by forcing two Irish tackles into his team’s try account and then found himself amongst the Irish breakdown to win a penalty.
Speaking of penalties, a pivotal moment seemed to come in the 50th minute as Andrew Porter clashed in his tackle on Brodie Retallick. At first glance, it looked like the incident that caused Angus Ta’avao to see red last week, but Wayne Barnes considered Porter’s contact less dominant and only issued a yellow.
Undeterred by the slightest sense of injustice, the All Blacks scored within a minute Akira Ioane with his first international try after a strong run driven by weak tackles from Dan Sheehan and Van der Flier. Sexton extended the lead from the tee before Savea – the one-man cavalry charge – threw a smart pass to Will Jordan for the wing to go 80 yards to land.
With 20 minutes remaining and three points clear, the next score was crucial. Rob Herring, new to the pitch, calmly punched his lineout jumper before peeling off the back of the maul and through an army of defenders to stretch to the line.
The 10-point cushion did little to dampen the feeling of dread as New Zealand dominated the final minutes. With that, Tadhg Beirne decided that Savea wouldn’t take the individual applause at the end, the Munster lock making three decisive defensive interventions at the breakdown. Each killed an ominous All Black attack. An incredible and winning effort. As the clock drifted into the final minute, Peter O’Mahony was already in tears – the scale of the feat setting in. In the end, he wasn’t the only one. “I bet you we’ve got four million home for breakfast, probably with a few pints watching us,” Sexton said. “We talk about them all the time, we want to make them proud, and we certainly did.”
“It’s never been done before,” O’Mahony added. “It’s something I never thought possible as a young man, but now the young men back home will know it can be done.” After 100 years of trying, this Irish team has ushered in a sea change in the art of the possible.