Local hero Rory Best left broken by All Blacks
Local hero Rory Best suffered a heartbreaking double blow as Ireland agonisingly lost out right at the end of one of international rugby’s greatest ever games.
A converted try from the final move of Sunday’s magnificent match dramatically denied Ireland a first ever victory over New Zealand in more than a century of trying and hooker Best sustained a broken wrist to compound his physical pain.
Instead of Ireland making history, Aaron Cruden’s conversion at the second attempt gave the visitors victory, their 14th in 14 matches in 2013 to become the first international team to go through a full calendar year with a 100 percent record.
For heroic Ireland it was a cruel conclusion to an enthralling encounter which will live long in the memory of the full house crowd who matched the team’s efforts by turning the Aviva Stadium into a cauldron.
Poyntzpass man Best scored his eighth Test try early on as inspired Ireland raced into a barely believable 19-0 lead in as many minutes against the mighty All Blacks before ultimately losing 24-22.
It was sensational stuff by the men in green against the world’s top team, especially considering the abject display against Australia at the same venue eight days earlier when woeful Ireland were outscored by four tries to nil.
Backed by a raucous crowd, the Irish team made amends for that depressing display by relentlessly tearing into their illustrious visitors and showing scant regard for their reputations.
Playing with a compelling mix of ferocity, control, constructive vision and incredible belief, Ireland took the game to the All Blacks and earned significant scoreboard reward in a near perfect first quarter.
Scrumhalf Conor Murray, one of only six non-Leinster players in Ireland’s matchday squad, got over for an early try which his halfback partner Johnny Sexton converted before Best had his moment of glory.
The hooker exchanged passes with fellow front row forward Cian Healy in the build-up to a great team try which he finished by abrasively brushing off two attempted tackles to barge over with Sexton again adding the extras.
But Best soon had to leave the field clutching his arm, though replacement Sean Cronin maintained the Ulsterman’s reliable lineout throwing and was one of many men in green to really raise his game.
Ireland’s third try was a breakaway by fullback Rob Kearney, who ran nearly the length of the pitch down the left touchline after an intercept close to his own line, though this time Sexton’s conversion attempt came back off the near post after looking like it was going over.
The outhalf had been doubtful for this match with injury as had Kearney and the legendary Brian O’Driscoll but none of the three backs broke down and all made crucial contributions to their team’s cause.
Tackling like men possessed and attacking with similar intensity, Ireland continued to give as good as they got though winger Julian Savea ran onto Cruden’s kick for a well-worked try just before the half hour mark.
A Sexton penalty was the least Ireland deserved for the first of several superb passages of pressure and a crunching hit by a subsequently dazed O’Driscoll ended the half as the hosts went in to a well justified standing ovation.
The interval scoreline of 22-7 brought back memories of the great game between these teams in 2001 which Ireland lost comfortably from a position of 21-7 up in the first half and the feeling was that they would need to score at least once more.
In the event, Ireland didn’t add to their tally but it was still nearly enough for that famous first victory in spite of a concussed O’Driscoll departing the field late in the third quarter after Cruden had reduced the arrears with a penalty.
The outhalf, filling in for injured legend Dan Carter, also skimmed one wide from long range but substitute prop Ben Franks got over for a converted try to set up a nerve-shredding last 10 minutes.
With the clock ticking round to 80 minutes of traditional time – though there were still six to go – Sexton had a relatively straightforward penalty chance to put Ireland two scores clear but somehow missed and there was a sickening sense it could be exceptionally costly.
So it proved, but not until deep in overtime, with the stop-clock long since red. Amid a deafening din, Ireland had continued to show savage commitment and commendable enterprise but finally gave away a penalty in the New Zealand half with 24 seconds left.
That was the chance the All Blacks needed and, retaining the ball brilliantly, the world’s top team probed with patient persistence until Cruden and reserve hooker Coles combined to put replacement Ryan Crotty over in the left corner.
To add to the suspense, referee Nigel Owens needed the television match official to confirm the try which would deny Ireland history and leave Cruden with a touchline conversion for the visitors to dramatically claim their own place in the record books.
He pushed it wide but was given a second chance when Owens decided Ireland were guilty of charging prematurely and this time nailed the difficult kick to add to the mythical history of the All Blacks brand.
Both Ireland’s Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt and captain Paul O’Connell admitted defeat was devastating, not least for O’Driscoll who will not now get another chance to taste victory over New Zealand.
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