This time was supposed to be different. This Ireland team were different… are different. But, come the end, the result was the same. On quarter-final weekend, for the eighth time in 10 Rugby World Cups, Ireland head home defeated and the wait for a first-ever knockout win goes on.
You could feel the desperation around the Stade de France, awash with green thanks to the Irish fans doing their part, as Ireland went through phase after phase after phase after phase hunting the try that could overturn the 28-24 scoreline staring back at them from the giant screen.
A move that started well inside their own half, with 77 minutes on the clock, ended 37 phases and five minutes later in heartbreak. Thirty-seven gruelling phases of Bundee Aki grinding out extra yards with each punishing carry, Tadhg Beirne left at a literal standstill through tiredness and Johnny Sexton – for the final time ahead of retirement – running the famous wraparound upon which he’s built maybe the greatest Ireland career of all-time. But it ended, almost inevitably, with a turnover deep in the New Zealand 22, the ball being kicked to touch and the men in green sinking to the floor bereft.
This is the greatest Ireland team of all time, they may still even be the best team in the world but on this day, the quarter-final curse, not to mention an inspired All Blacks side, ruled once more.
This defeat will hurt more than any other. Truthfully, since 1991 when Michael Lynagh’s late try handed Australia victory, Ireland hadn’t come close to ending their last-eight hoodoo. Never mind winning one, they haven’t led a World Cup quarter-final since the first half of the 1995 defeat to France, a mammoth 10,353 days ago.
But here they had a legitimate chance to reverse the curse. Multiple times they got within a point of the All Blacks, only for their opponents to agonisingly pull away once more. And then there were those 37 phases… the most painful finish in Irish rugby history.
Instead of being feted as the heroes to finally overcome that insurmountable obstacle, the Ireland players will still have to answer endless questions about the heavy burden of previous knockout failures and fans will endure at least four more years of choking jokes at their expense.
As for the All Blacks, they looked lost at times during this World Cup cycle and it’s still faintly remarkable that head coach Ian Foster survived last summer as the home defeats to Ireland, South Africa and Argentina piled up.
Yet somehow, he hung on and turned things round. He has the unwanted title of being the first New Zealand coach to lose a World Cup pool match but now a semi-final awaits next Friday evening against an Argentina side that, frankly, are a tier below them. Forget the hand-wringing ahead of the tournament, the All Blacks are one very small step away from another World Cup final.
Foster will leave his role after the World Cup, to be replaced by all-conquering Crusaders boss Scott Robertson, but he can still exit with the greatest prize of all. And frankly, who would bet against the All Blacks now?
The opening-night nerves against France seem a long time ago and they ultimately had too much for Ireland in this simply incredible, back-and-forth Test match that may genuinely go down as one of the best of all time.
After early penalties from Richie Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett, they scored a scintillating try through Leicester Fainga’anuku, who was only in the starting XV due to Mark Telea’s breach of team protocol earlier in the week. Beauden Barrett expertly dinked over the top, collected his own chip and when the ball was spread wide, Fainga’anuku and Rieko Ioane neatly combined to send the former over in the corner.
They led 13-0 and though they may not have realised, no team had ever squandered a lead that large in a World Cup quarter-final. Not that they would have expected an easy ride from there.
They conceded a penalty straight from the restart as their kick chase was illegally impeded and Sexton duly slotted the three.
Ireland had made something of a statement during the Haka as their fans drowned it out with a rousing rendition of Fields of Athenry and the players formed a figure of eight in memory of ex-international and Munster coach Anthony Foley, who tragically died in 2016, as they stared down their opponents. But the first real in-match statement came on 27 minutes as New Zealand-born Aki – perhaps the player of the World Cup so far who had made a tournament-high 61 carries, 33 dominant carries and 23 defenders beaten heading into the weekend – brilliantly jinked inside two defenders, fended off another and powered through a gap to dive over the line.
Yet more All-Black class saw Ardie Savea go over in the corner after quick ball was shipped wide but with scrum-half Aaron Smith in the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on, Ireland narrowed the gap to 18-17 just before the break as another New Zealand-born Irish star, Jamison Gibson-Park, sniped from a lineout maul and somehow stretched out for the try.
The All Blacks extended an incredible record of leading at half-time of their quarter-final in every single World Cup but that lead had never felt more fragile.
The second half followed a similar, rollercoaster pattern as every time Ireland got close, their opponents found a way to stretch the lead. Mo’unga’s sumptuous dummy and sleight of hand from first-phase lineout ball froze two Irish defenders and led to a scything break before he fed speedster Will Jordan to race over the whitewash.
That extended the gap to eight points but a penalty try as an Irish driving maul was illegally hauled down closed it to 25-24 with 17 minutes to go and sent Codie Taylor for 10 minutes in the sin-bin.
Yet this All Blacks team suddenly have a resilience about them and brushed off the underdog status they had been given in the build-up to this game as their tireless back row continually disrupted breakdowns and a disciplined defence refused to yield.
Jordie Barrett added a penalty to take the score to 28-24 and that’s how it eventually stayed. While Ireland will rue the 37 phases that ended in heartbreak, they may just go down in New Zealand rugby history. Tired bodies made tackle after tackle and not a single penalty was given away.
The delight at the final whistle showed this wasn’t just any quarter-final victory and while Ireland ponder just what they have to do to finally win a World Cup knockout match, the All Blacks can dream of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for a fourth time. The pain and ecstasy of sport writ large.
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