By Paul Eddison at the Stade de France
Ireland’s emergence as a global rugby superpower has coincided with the end of New Zealand’s dominance of the sport.
But in one of the most anticipated quarter-finals in Rugby World Cup history, the All Blacks served up a reminder of just how special they can be.
An epic encounter at the Stade de France began with a remarkable Irish defensive stand and ended with an even greater one from the All Blacks as New Zealand came through 28-24.
It means that Ireland’s wait for a World Cup semi-final endures. They arrived in France with the greatest team in their history and this was the best performance they have ever produced on this stage.
It just was not quite enough.
The quarter-final hoodoo continues, but this was different. They may never have led, but Ireland pushed New Zealand to their very limits, with all 30 players on the field at full-time out on their feet.
For Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton, it was not the way he wanted to bow out of the game after achieving so much.
The debates over where he will rank in Ireland’s greatest ever rugby players will go on, but he could not have given more.
He acknowledged as much, saying: “You've got to work hard for fairytale endings and we didn't get it but that's life. We left no stone unturned, we ticked every box, trained the house down, and played pretty well tonight. A few decisions, a bounce of the ball ... fair play to the All Blacks.”
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 14, 2023
A month on from defeat in this ground to hosts France, New Zealand showed that they have learned their lessons.
In the World Cup opener, they burst out of the blocks, and they did so again here. But where France were able to grind their way back into the game and eventually squeeze the life out of New Zealand, this time the All Blacks were always able to maintain control of the scoreboard.
Ireland came close, cutting an early 13-0 deficit back to a single point with 15 minutes remaining.
But despite New Zealand playing 20 minutes with 14 men, when the pressure came on, they were able to hang on.
In front of a crowd that must have been 80 percent green, New Zealand were able to use their superior scrum and lineout to eke out points and keep Ireland chasing the scoreboard.
They never trailed and you have to go all the way back to 1995 for the last time Ireland led in a quarter-final. It is a quite remarkable stat.
On this occasion, New Zealand started with a couple of early penalties, the first after Ireland had managed to defend 30 phases in their own 22. The All Blacks were on the board but it felt like a victory for Ireland’s defence.
Between the two All Black penalties, Ireland had turned down their own chance to get on the scoreboard, kicking to the corner as has become their habit but unable to execute.
When Leicester Fainga’anuku, who was only in after Mark Telea was dropped for a disciplinary reason, finished a brilliant counter-attack started by Beauden Barrett, it seemed that the game was getting away from Ireland.
But from 13-0, they rallied. This team had not won 17 matches in a row and moved to world number one for nothing.
Bundee Aki has been Ireland’s best player in France, and he stepped up again, finishing brilliantly as he left four All Black defenders in his wake.
But every time Ireland threatened to come back, New Zealand struck. Ardie Savea’s acrobatic finish in the corner pushed the lead back to eight.
And even when Jamison Gibson-Park punished 14 men after Aaron Smith’s yellow card, New Zealand held a slender one-point lead.
This should be incredible
Last time I was here, New Zealand went in as underdogs, started fast but couldn’t keep it up
Can they avoid history repeating itself?
Not sure Ireland’s QF hoodoo will be much of a factor#RWC2023 pic.twitter.com/WzwmX1lz38
— Paul Eddison (@pauleddison) October 14, 2023
When the scoreboard was close, Ireland felt the more threatening, but the All Blacks can strike from anywhere. After last year’s poor run, they turned to Joe Schmidt and the former Ireland coach is renowned for his ability to devise strike moves off first phase.
He came up with another here. Off a lineout near halfway, Mo’unga used the threat of Will Jordan on his inside to break between two defenders before putting the winger away for a try. Jordie Barrett’s conversion made it a two-score advantage once again.
The nerves were starting to tell, Sexton with an uncharacteristic miss from the kicking tee that felt crucial.
But they kept coming, getting back to 25-24 with a monster maul that was dropped illegally, Codie Taylor sent to the sin-bin.
The game may have gone in the next ten minutes. New Zealand winning that period down a man 3-0, including holding another Irish maul up over the line.
Trailing by four, Ireland still had a final chance, and matched and even topped the All Blacks first-half effort in going through 37 phases.
They could not find the hole in the black wall though and eventually Sam Whitelock got the turnover penalty to seal victory.
New Zealand will march on, overwhelming favourites against Argentina in Friday’s semi-final.
For Ireland, the wait for a place in the last four goes on. Sexton will never get that far, but is confident that this team will do so.
He said: “This is the best group I’ve ever been a part of, bar none. These guys will go on and achieve great things.”
If they keep playing at this level, he will be right.