All eyes were on Paris on Saturday at 8 o’clock as Ireland faced New Zealand in the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup. The quarter-finals had been the bane of Irish Rugby – seven previous World Cup Quarter Finals, seven losses. Finally, this time would be different, or so the pre-match consensus suggested.
Ireland’s starting XV remained much the same for this fixture in comparison to how they had lined out for the previous game against Scotland, with Joe McCarthy swapping in for UCD man James Ryan, who has been suffering with a hand injury and Jimmy O’Brien replacing Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey. Ireland came to face a New Zealand side who, although managing well so far in the tournament, seemed to lack their more experienced players from previous years.
The atmosphere pre-match was said to be electric with Irish fans taking Paris in numbers, as they had every gameday up to this point in the tournament. Their fanatic support throughout, coupled with the love for the song ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries, became two of the highlights of the competition.
In a moving tribute to the legendary Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley, the Irish players lined out in a figure of eight to face the Haka. Irishman Andrew Porter had tears falling during Ireland’s Call, somewhat of a throwback to John ‘the Bull’ Hayes’ moment of raw emotion in 2007 vs England in Croke Park. This was going to be a moment in rugby history.
The game wasted no minutes in getting going, with Richie Mo’unga and Jordie Barrett putting the ball between the posts for two early penalties. Ireland got their first penalty a minute later when Ardie Savea went off his feet.
Sexton opted for the corner as Ireland sought an early try time. Just past the ten minute mark, James Lowe dropped a pass from Hugo Keenan in the corner, summarising Ireland’s sloppy state of play.
The worries really began for the men in green after twelve minutes when the ball was turned over and Fainga’anuku went over for New Zealand’s first try. Jordie Barrett with a penalty after 13 minutes had Ireland behind by 13.
Sexton converted a penalty for Ireland before star player of the tournament Bundee Aki went over for Ireland’s first try making it five tries in five matches in this Rugby World Cup. Ardie Savea went over for another All Blacks try before Ireland responded with a fine one-piece of skill by Jamison Gibson-Park giving Ireland their second try of the evening.
Halftime arrived, after a breathtaking end-to-end first half of rugby played, Ireland down by one – 17-18. Ireland were on the ropes, but still in the fight.
The end-to-end action continued in the second half. Will Jordan scored for New Zealand before Ireland secured a penalty try to make it a one-point game once again after sixty-three minutes. A Jordie Barrett penalty after Sexton failed to put the ball between the posts from the tee, left the All Blacks 4 points ahead.
Ireland sustained pressure and rucked to the line after a 70th-minute lineout. The ball was over the line and all eyes went to referee Wayne Barnes as he quickly ruled there to be no try. The players stood up to see Jordie Barrett had somehow managed to keep the ball from being grounded.
Ireland kept fighting till the very end, battling through thirty-two phases on the New Zealand try line before finally, Wayne Barnes called a penalty and the All Blacks kicked the game to touch making it eight losses now for Ireland at the Rugby World Cup in the quarter-final stage.
Jonathan Sexton and Peter O’Mahony may both have played their final games in green and on the day, with a more clinical lineout and fewer penalties conceded could have been victorious. Of course, we can’t forget about Jordie Barrett’s phenomenal try-saving tackle on Ronan Kelleher.
Despite the result, the boys can be very proud of themselves as they fought till the end and gave the All Blacks a tremendous fight. New Zealand will no doubt go on to beat Argentina in the semi-final before a likely final between either South Africa or France. Many people truly believed this would be Ireland’s year but as Sexton aptly remarked post-match, “that’s life”.
All respect for Jonathan Sexton who many have said has changed Irish rugby forever, but the day belonged to the men in black – Ireland will be back.
Eoin Gilligan – Sports Writer