Wave after wave of Ireland’s green jerseys threw themselves at the New Zealand line with the clock ticking down and a Rugby World Cup semifinal at stake.
Ireland probed left, right, tried pushing through the middle. Every attack was repelled until, finally, Ireland’s 37th phase ended and, with it, Irish hopes of a first semifinal were extinguished by a black blanket.
For all of its attacking, try-scoring might, New Zealand showed how to grind it out the hard way.
The All Blacks withstood three comebacks from top-ranked Ireland and two yellow cards to win their gripping quarterfinal 28-24 on Saturday and stay on course for a record fourth title.
“What an incredible finish to a test match, 37 phases. That’s probably the longest period I’ve heard of or witnessed,” New Zealand captain Sam Cane said. “It’s pretty clear that the defense won us the match tonight. Teams who win the World Cup do so with great defenses. That has to be our benchmark going forward.”
This was a victory for mental resolve.
“We didn’t allow ourselves to get rattled,” Cane said. “We know how we want to play, we know what we’re about now.”
The All Blacks come back to Stade de France to meet Argentina next Friday, after the Pumas rallied to beat Wales 29-17 in Marseille earlier.
“Well breathe a little bit,” New Zealand coach Ian Foster said. “We’ve got memories of 2019 and slipping up in the semis so we’ve got to make sure that we’re in the house going for another big one (title).”
Ireland goes home after falling short again with an eighth Rugby World Cup quarterfinal defeat. The Irish trailed 13-0 and 18-10 in the first half, and by 25-17 in the second half before a penalty try made it a one-point contest with a little more than 15 minutes left. Hooker Codie Taylor was sin-binned for collapsing the maul, leaving New Zealand a man down for the second time.
The tension rose again when Jordie Barrett missed a penalty, but he slotted his next penalty kick to give New Zealand a slender four-point cushion with 10 minutes left.
New Zealand resisted a huge maul on the tryline with a few minutes left and then incredibly withstood 37 Irish phases on the last all-for-nothing Irish attack for a monumental victory.
“We are absolutely stoked. It was a crazy test match, an absolute arm wrestle,” Cane said. “We don’t want to be playing with 14 men but we had to twice there. The boys dug a bit deeper.”
New Zealand’s first-half tries came from left winger Leicester Fainga’anuku and No. 8 Ardie Savea; Ireland’s from center Bundee Aki and scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park, both New Zealand-born.
Right winger Will Jordan’s brilliant try early in the second half, expertly set up and then converted by flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, gave the All Blacks a 25-17 lead.
The first half was cagey.
Fainga’anuku’s early try helped the All Blacks to 13-0 and gave him his fifth try of the tournament. But a penalty from standout flyhalf Jonathan Sexton and Aki’s well-taken converted try dragged the Irish back to 13-10.
Aki took a high catch from James Lowe and ghosted inside center Rieko Ioane and Shannon Frizell, slipped two weak cover tackles, and crashed over.
Back came New Zealand, with Jordan and Rieko Ioane combining to send Ardie Savea flying into the right corner. Savea stood up, crossed his arms, thumped his chest after finishing like a winger.
Then more drama, as referee Wayne Barnes sin-binned scrumhalf Aaron Smith in the 37th minute for a a deliberate knock on as a line-break ball was reaching Gibson-Park.
Ireland took an attacking lineout, the maul worked to perfection, and Gibson-Park dummied inside Jordan to squirm over the line for a converted try.
One point in it at halftime, and an extra man for Ireland for the first few minutes of the second half.
Smith came back on just after hooker Dan Sheehan failed to catch Mack Hansen’s high kick into the right corner.
New Zealand then scored the try of the night.
Lock Brodie Retallick won a lineout on the halfway line and the ball was fed to Mo’unga, who carved a hole through Ireland’s midfield before offloading for Jordan to sprint into the right corner for his fifth try of the tournament.
Sexton missed a penalty on the hour mark, the Irish kept probing on both flanks.
They got another break when Barnes awarded a penalty try, but New Zealand did not concede when a man down and held on for a titanic victory.
“We gave the fans what they wanted. A big testament to this Irish team,” Savea said. ”I am just so proud of my boys.”
Ireland’s winning test run ended at 17, one short of the tier one record held by England and New Zealand, and one short of a desperately sought first semifinal.
“I was so proud of the way we came back and kept attacking them right until the death,” Ireland coach Andy Farrell said. “We’ve had a good run but sport can be cruel sometimes, I guess that’s why we love it.”
There were no victorious Irish anthems after the final whistle. But when Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” rang out, it seemed a fitting tribute to New Zealand’s incredible resilience.
Ireland topped Pool B after winning all four games, including a prized 13-8 victory against defending champion South Africa and a six-try blitz of Scotland.
After losing to host France 27-13 in the tournament’s opening game, the All Blacks routed Namibia, Italy and Uruguay to finish second in Pool A and set up a meeting with the Irish. Ireland had won three of their last four meetings, five of the last eight.
Ireland’s Green Army of fans drowned out the haka by belting out “The Fields of Athenry” so loudly it could have shaken homes back in Dublin.
“They had massive expectations to perform,” Foster said. “Our role was just to be quiet and steel ourselves for the challenge we needed. I don’t think we’ll be under the radar next week.”
Ireland’s solid defense held out for 30 phases at the start of the game but conceded the penalty advantage and Mo’unga slotted over in the eighth minute. When Irish No. 8 Caelan Doris infringed, Jordie Barrett’s monster penalty from halfway made it 6-0.
Then, after Beauden Barrett broke through, Fainga’anuku crossed in the left corner after swapping passes neatly with Ioane, and Mo’unga converted for 13-0 midway through the half.
Sexton finally got Ireland on the board moments later with a penalty.
There was still hope.
But his final match in the green jersey would end in bitter disappointment.
“You’ve got to work hard for fairytale endings and we didn’t get it but that’s life,” Sexton said. “We left no stone unturned, we ticked every box, trained the house down.”
For all their efforts, however, the Irish never led in the game and this will go down as an opportunity lost.
“They sucker-punched us on a few tries and that’s what champion teams do,” Sexton said.
Farrell paid tribute to his departing captain.
“First and foremost he’s an outstanding human being,” he said. “He’s probably the best ever player to play for Ireland.”
The other two quarterfinals are on Sunday, with host France playing South Africa at Stade de France and 2003 champion England facing Fiji earlier in Marseille.