Thursday, November 28, 2013

Ireland Play Like Heroes

Last weekend, just before Saturday turned to Sunday, George Groves entered the MEN Arena to a cacophony of boos ahead of his showdown with Carl Froch. However, he was carried out of there on a chorus of cheers having had the fight unceremoniously ripped away from him with a controversial intervention.

Roll on Sunday, the day of rest. Nobody had told the Gods of Sporting Injustice though, they were working a two day weekend and so it was onwards to Dublin. An All Blacks team, unbeaten in 2013, visiting Ireland who were soundly beaten by Australia just eight short winter days before. The result seemed a mere formality; not so much a case of who would win as by how many?

Before kick-off, match day commentator Brian Moore tweeted "Can the Irish beat ABs for 1st time? Doubt it." At the time few would have argued. Ireland have never beaten New Zealand; 27 meetings since 1905, one draw and 26 Irish defeats. The silver fern has always overshadowed the shamrock. Since lifting the William Webb Ellis Cup in 2011, the Kiwis' had suffered just one defeat to Norovirus and Manu Tuilagi England. For 2013 they were one win from perfection; one big 'W' from a record.

In Dublin The All Blacks would be without the mercurial Carter, but Ireland appeared to be without hope.
Ireland, New Zealand, Haka, rugby, All Blacks
That's the joy of sport. Sometimes when you think you know exactly what's going to happen it surprises you, more than any film twist or TV character death. 

As the Irish players faced the haka, you could see it under the surface and in their eyes. Passion and emotion burned inside them, they believed and it showed. Ireland played with high levels of intensity, daring to take on the All Blacks at their own game (as Groves had promised Froch he would too).

The game had barely begun when Nigel Owens confirmed the TMO's decision; Conor Murray had not only put Ireland on the front foot, but on the scoreboard too. The Mighty All Blacks floored in minutes and unsteady on their feet.

The game pinged back and forth like a squash ball, but within six minutes Ireland had crossed again. Another Irish surge, another Murray attempt at the line. This time he was short, but Rory Best finished what the scrum half couldn't. Ireland were in dreamland, New Zealand were rattled.

The boys from the Emerald Isle upped the intensity to breaking point, forcing All Black errors. For every attack, there was an Irish counter punch. The usually flawless Israel Dagg knocked on. Opposite number Rob Kearney was on the end to race away for Ireland's third, cheered to the line like Arkle on the home straight. 17 minutes on the clock, nineteen Irish points on the board.
Rob Kearney, Ireland, New Zealand, All Blacks, rugby,
The champions were doing all they could to keep themselves in the scrap, but like all experienced champions they neither panicked nor rested on their laurels. They attacked in waves, pushed Ireland onto the defensive, searching for gaps. Aaron Cruden spotted a hole in the guard and jabbed through a kick that let Julien Savea land a sucker punch.

Ireland came forward again in contest like two heavyweights standing toe-to-toe and swinging. The sound of heavy impacts were extreme, not leather on flesh, but rather bone on muscle. Ireland were winning the exchanges as New Zealand hung on until half time.

Half way to paradise, Irish ill-discipline began to slip in. A crooked scrum feed, a silly obstruction, hands in the ruck. Tiredness? Over excitement? Panic? Ireland had to keep their focus and they would need to do it without their talisman Brian O'Driscoll, removed from the field with concussion and unable to return.

Ireland entered the closing rounds still ahead, but stuttering as their visitors built up steam. Ireland stood strong, but the Kiwis continued to pummel them in close quarters until Ben Franks crossed with 15 minutes remaining. Ireland 22 - New Zealand 17.
rugby, try, Ireland, New Zealand, All Blacks, Ben Franks,
The exchange of blows continued with the play sweeping end-to-end. Attack followed by counter attack with neither team able to land the knock out blow they needed. A Jonny Sexton penalty whistled past the sticks and in the final round it could still go either way, but the All Blacks would need something special.

However, this was the All Blacks and something special is their forte, their party trick. They ate up almost 80 metres in as many seconds and Ryan Crotty grounded the ball. A kick would seal a perfect campaign for the All Blacks, but Cruden's kick drifted wide.

Then came a referee's intervention, this time a correct one. Ireland had charged too soon (not for the first time) and Nigel Owens ordered a retake. Cruden lined it up again and this time it was perfect.

It was the second time that weekend a last gasp try had sealed a New Zealand victory. The day before Shaun Johnson crossed the whitewash at Wembley with 20 seconds remaining, the resultant conversion set up a Rugby League World Cup final against their Antipodean neighbours and broke English hearts. This time Ireland were the losers and,  after such an amazing game, the winner was rugby.

The World champions were victorious, but it was the challengers that captured the hearts and imaginations of the neutrals. Much like Groves less than 24 hours before, Ireland were clapped and cheered from the arena. They were winless, but in the eyes of all that witnessed, they were heroes.

David Bowie - Heroes

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