New Zealand 22-19 Ireland, Christchurch
The one that got away
June 16, 2012
Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll reflects on his side's narrow defeat in Christchurch © Getty Images
Ireland's greatest performance on New Zealand soil came agonisingly close to earning them a first-ever win over the All Blacks but in the end their outstanding effort brought them no reward.
Outclassed and thrashed in Auckland just seven days before, the outlook was bleak ahead of this clash with many predicting more pain for the tourists including the bookmakers - some of whom had New Zealand at 1/40 to win this game at a canter. That feeling clearly did not extend to an Ireland squad brimming with belief and intent on causing an upset. They battered the All Blacks to the brink of submission but crucially lacked the ruthless killer instinct required to make history, level the series and send a shockwave around the world.
"Controlled abandon" was the Ireland's publicly-stated target coming into this game and they wasted little time in setting the tone with their superior energy and urgency at the breakdown rocking an All Blacks side that may have been guilty of thinking the series was as good as in the bag.
Ireland simply refused to let their hosts dominate as they had done so ominously at Eden Park. As a result the composed All Blacks from that one-sided affair were nowhere to be found. Instead we had an error-prone side that struggled to get a foothold in the game with a spilled ball from centre Sonny Bill Williams and wild pass into touch from his team-mate Israel Dagg just two examples of the kind of damage inflicted by a ball-hungry Ireland.
But the tourists were not content to just hold their own - they were after the win and that superior desire soon paid dividends. A kickable penalty was sent to the corner and the gamble eventually paid off with scrum-half Conor Murray darting over from close range. But that confidence in their ability extended beyond that moment with a super kick-chase game and the unrivalled industry of the likes of loose-head Cian Healey and flanker Sean O'Brien combining to deny the All Blacks time and space to think and dominate.
The All Blacks had no choice but to role with the punches with the boot of Dan Carter just about keeping them in the contest. Veteran Richie McCaw uncharacteristically coughed up possession time and time again as his pack were handed a lesson at the breakdown. And winger Julian Savea, who announced himself on the international stage with a hat-trick in the 1st Test, was notably absent throughout this clash, starved of the ball and opportunities to wreak havoc. Carter was another to occasionally fluff his lines with a dreadful second half drop goal attempt helping to fuel Irish belief.
Crucially he and the All Blacks were never out of the contest. Late in the second half the All Blacks appeared in control of the game, with a second half try from Aaron Smith helping to overhaul a determined Ireland. But the introduction of Ronan O'Gara and the shifting of Jonathan Sexton to his outside gave Ireland fresh impetus and New Zealand fresh reason to doubt.
The Irish forwards were also relentless and the All Blacks' frustration boiled over with Dagg rightfully seeing yellow for a late challenge on Ireland's Rob Kearney and Kiwi replacement Ali Williams arguably lucky to escape a similar sanction. With a significant head of steam, Ireland powered forward only to see a crucial scrum penalty go against them. It was a 50-50 call, but referee Nigel Owens ruled against the Irish pack for running the set-piece around.
Owens' whistle gave New Zealand the ball and with it a priceless opportunity to play a 'get out of jail' card. Down to 14 men, New Zealand showed their class by driving deep into Irish territory only where replacement scrum-half Piri Weepu did his best to butcher the chance to win the game. Thankfully for him, and a bumper AMI Stadium crowd hoping to see the All Blacks make a winning return to Christchurch, Carter was not so wasteful.
The All Blacks punched the air in delight as one as Ireland's brave challenge was thwarted in the most dramatic of circumstances. Ireland will never have a better opportunity to bloody the nose of New Zealand but they will at least have another chance next weekend and on this showing it is one we should all relish.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.