A night that will live long in the memory started with a fitting tribute to the late Anthony Foley
Ireland recorded a historic first victory over New Zealand in Chicago on Saturday night, ending the All Blacks' winning streak.
Although the team that took to the field that day in 2013, when Ireland came so close before, were arguably more talented, this side had something else about them. The lack of errors being made on Saturday suggested many of Schmidt’s men were doing exactly what he asks of all his sides - maximise their potential and minimise their errors.
They took an early lead through the boot of Sexton, giving them a bright start on a sunny afternoon at Solider Field in Chicago, but New Zealand showed just what has served them so well over their 18-game winning streak.
Waisake Naholo suddenly turned on the afterburners, getting through the defence with speed, before George Moala eventually crossed the line. Despite the bounce of the ball going the wrong way as CJ Stander tried to get back, heads didn’t fall, however, as Ireland trusted in what their manager had told them.
The maul was yielding results, and keeping the All Blacks up with choke tackles was fuelling the team's defensive push.
Joe Moody’s tip tackle on Robbie Henshaw saw Mathieu Raynal send him to the bin, and while Ireland have often struggled to capitalise against 14 men, they knew that against the best side in the world, you need to make that advantage count.
They did. The set pieces were near perfect, showing how Schmidt prepares his team and relies on the unit as a whole to achieve. While Jordi Murphy claimed the try, the well-oiled maul was the reason that Ireland got over the line.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Sexton was on song in the early exchanges, and a mammoth kick to touch in the 15th minute set up the move for the next try. Quick hands from fly-half and Conor Murray created space for Rob Kearney, who broke through the gain line before Stander powered over. Suddenly, history was not weighing as heavily on Ireland as it had in the past.
A handling error shortly afterwards from Ireland gifted New Zealand a way to close the gap from the kicking tee, and Beauden Barrett made no mistake.
It could have been 14 points, but the gap was down to just seven as it looked as though New Zealand were going to start going through the phases at their leisure.
Rob Kearney was up to the defensive asks that came down his side however, and was in the type of form that suggested that he was proving a point today. New Zealand looked for space out wide, but they were not getting any. His take after that penalty was conceded gave Ireland some important territorial gains, and settled the nerves that may have been creeping in.
An injury to Jordi Murphy caused a long stoppage on the 25th minute, which saw both teams performing drills on the pitch to stay warm, and that slowing of the game had an effect. The All Blacks began to once again turn the screw, but Schmidt’s men were relying on keeping their opponents upright in the tackle, secure in the knowledge their set piece would see them through.
As the clock ticked over the 30 minute mark, Murray showed a poacher’s instinct to produce something special, and the fans in green jerseys started to believe. Some rare confusion for the All Blacks inside their own half saw Ireland pounce, and when the Munster man spotted the gap, he went straight for the line.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
The half-time break would have brought some harsh words from Steve Hansen to his team, and there was a reaction as they made their first meaningful inroads into Irish territory for a substantial period to start the second half.
Once again, Ireland stood strong, and resolute tackling gave them the opportunity to get up the pitch and go to the maul from a lineout. This time, they managed to find Sexton in space on the left side, and he in turn found Zebo in wait with the try line in sight. He made no mistake, and touched down to extend the gap to 22 points as they took a 30-8 lead.
Image: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Sexton missed the conversion, and less than a minute later New Zealand had responded as only they know how. Fantastic hands saw space get opened up as they scythed through the Irish defence, and TJ Perenara’s take from a stunning offload saw him go straight in near the posts.
Fast-forward another few minutes, and the All Blacks were in again, this time Ben Smith was the man who touched the ball down, despite the best efforts of Zebo to tackle him and take him into touch. The shadow of 2013’s heartbreak was looming long, and getting darker as the game wore on.
Image: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Barrett converted both, and with around 25 minutes left, there was all of a sudden just eight points in it. Ireland needed a response, and it was Murray who produced it. He stepped up to kick a penalty over after Kearney was blocked on a chase, and the All Blacks had their momentum stopped in its tracks.
Sexton was struggling and had already received treatment a number of times at this point. Unable to continue, Leinster’s Joey Carbery was brought in for a baptism of fire, with the game on the line.
New Zealand were finding gaps with ease at this stage, and Scott Barrett, in on his debut, added another try to bring them straight back to within touching distance. With just four points in it, Ireland's lead was dissolved, with too much time on the clock for their liking.
Schmidt's men looked to have hit their emotional pitch in the first half, and there were clearly more gears for New Zealand to find as the game continued.
Reinforcements came in from Schmidt's bench to stem the tide however, and the defence was magnificent for the majority of the game. A big stop from Andrew Trimble put an end to another New Zealand attack, and a well placed kick from Carbery put Ireland up the pitch. With the scrum once again doing its job, Henshaw was in place to make a beeline for the score, touching down a truly historic try.
Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
With three minutes remaining, Ireland knew that history was waiting as they kept their heads and saw it through to the final whistle. In Chicago, inspiration came in the shape of a figure eight.