CHICAGO: Ireland ended a century-long losing streak to claim a historic first-ever win over New Zealand, sending the All Blacks spinning to a 40-29 defeat with a scintillating display.
Just days after the Windy City erupted in celebration after the Chicago Cubs landed their first World Series baseball crown in 108 years, Ireland booted their own 111-year rugby hoodoo firmly into touch.
Roared on by army of green-clad fans in a 62,300 crowd at Soldier Field, the Irish outscored the All Blacks by five tries to four to seal their first win over the Kiwis in the 29th instalment of a rivalry dating to 1905.
“It has been a long time coming and history (has been) made. We’re absolutely ecstatic,” Ireland skipper Rory Best said after leading his team on a raucous lap of honor at the famed NFL venue.
“We knew they are a great side. You can see how good a side they are and how much it means to our boys to have won that.”
Ireland were forced to cling on in the closing stages after a ferocious New Zealand fightback, which saw the All Blacks recover from a 30-8 deficit to go within four points at 33-29 with around 15 minutes to go.
But with the crowd roaring them home, Ireland scored a fifth and final try through outstanding center Robbie Henshaw, converted by replacement fly-half Joey Carbery, to clinch a famous victory.
Only last month, the All Blacks had set a world record for consecutive victories with their 18th win in a row.
New Zealand’s preparations for the Test had been thrown into disarray by the absence through injury of first choice locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.
The further absence of second row Luke Romano following a family bereavement had forced them into starting a makeshift pairing of Jerome Kaino and Patrick Tuipulotu.
But New Zealand coach Steve Hansen refused to blame the injury crisis for the loss.
“The right side won,” Hansen said. “The Irish side played very well and congratulations to them.
“We don’t want to use (the injuries) as an excuse. We trained well enough, we prepared well enough, we thought. We’re not going to make any excuses about not having the right people.”
The moments before the match had seen Ireland pay an emotional tribute to beloved former international Anthony Foley, who died suddenly last month at the age of 42.
As New Zealand lined up to perform their traditional haka, Ireland’s players stood before them in a figure of eight — a reference to Foley’s position.
“We felt it was the right thing to do,” Best said. “There was a lot of emotion.”
Once the game got under way, Ireland wasted no time in exploiting New Zealand’s weakness at second row.
Johnny Sexton kicked Ireland ahead with a penalty after only four minutes when French referee Mathieu Raynal whistled the All Blacks for not rolling away at the breakdown.
But New Zealand hit back immediately with the opening try of the game, George Moala finishing off after Waisake Naholo’s electrifying break.
Fly-half Beauden Barrett scuffed his conversion attempt to leave New Zealand’s lead at 5-3.
Ireland were then handed a crucial advantage after All Black prop Joe Moody was sin-binned for a clear tip tackle on Henshaw.
The ensuing 10-minute period saw Ireland score 12 unanswered point through tries from Jordi Murphy and C.J. Stander to make it 15-5.
Barrett closed the gap to seven points with a penalty after Ireland were offside but Sexton restored Ireland’s 10-point lead with a further three-pointer.
Ireland were forced to make a change in the 26th minute when Murphy was stretchered off with what looked like a knee injury, replaced by Josh van der Flier.
But the disruption was fleeting, with scrum-half Conor Murray dummying Aaron Smith to scamper over for Ireland’s third try. Sexton converted to make it 25-8 at half-time.
The second half began with New Zealand looking sharper and faster, but it was Ireland who scored next, Sexton feeding Simon Zebo for 30-8.
Yet New Zealand roared back through tries from replacement scrum-half T.J Perenara and Ben Smith to take the score to 30-22.
A Murray penalty put Ireland 33-22 ahead but a 64th minute try by All Black debutant lock Scott Barrett, took New Zealand back to 33-27.
Brother Beauden added the conversion and New Zealand were suddenly within four.
Ireland’s defenders resisted furious late pressure, though, and Henshaw crashed over with four minutes to go to complete a magnificent win.