Dublin: World Champions New Zealand became the first team in the professional era to win all their Test matches in a calendar year as Aaron Cruden converted with the last kick of the game to beat Ireland 24-22 in a pulsating encounter at Lansdowne Road on Sunday.
The Irish had stormed into a 22-7 half-time lead, but they failed to score a point in the second half and a missed penalty by Johnny Sexton four minutes from time cost them their first ever victory over the All Blacks.
It was the fifth time the Irish had conceded a half-time lead to their opponents and leaves them with just a draw and 27 defeats in their head-to-head meetings, while the All Blacks finish with 14 wins from 14 Tests in 2013.
Man-of-the-match Sean O’Brien said Ireland had been taught a harsh lesson.
“We’re very disappointed to start off the way we did [and not win], but obviously it was not enough in the end,” he said.
“We’ve got to learn from this and put these types of games away. I don’t want to be too negative but that is the blunt truth.”
Ireland’s New Zealander coach Joe Schmidt said they only had themselves to blame.
“It was the one we were really up for. [We] missed [a] penalty yeah but we got the ball back with 24 seconds to go,” he said.
“You’ve got to be prepared to defend till the final seconds and we didn’t. We just have to live with that now.
“A draw would also have been a loss to us. We had invested in winning that game. I just felt we didn’t get the reward in the end.”
The Irish early fire was rewarded in the fifth minute as, having driven deep into All Black territory, Conor Murray went over and, following a video review, the try was awarded for his second Test score in his 22nd appearance, although it appeared he may have dropped the ball.
Sexton converted to take him over the 300-point mark with 301.
Incredibly, the Irish were over again for a second try in the 11th minute as Rory Best scored the sixth of his 70-Test career. Sexton converted to unbelievably give the hosts a 14-0 lead.
The Irish were rampant and had a third try in the 19th minute as Rob Kearney, who had been a doubt through the week with a rib injury, ran it back from inside his 22 after Israel Dagg spilled the ball into his hands.
Sexton’s conversion hit the post to leave Ireland leading 19-0 and bringing back memories of the last Test under Warren Gatland’s reign in 2001, when they led 21-7 at the break only to lose.
Finally this appeared to spark the flat All Blacks into putting together some fluent running rugby, which produced a try.
Cruden spotted a huge gap behind the Irish defence, chipped through and the prolific Julian Savea, who was unmarked on the wing, ran onto the ball to touch down in the 26th minute. Cruden converted for 19-7.
The Irish, though, were not deflated by that in the least and stormed back deep into All Black territory. They were only prevented from going over by some gritty defence and were eventually rewarded with a penalty that Sexton slotted over for 22-7.
The Irish came out equally fired up for the second half, but it was their defence that held up as Dagg thought he had got over in the 50th minute, only for Murray to be judged to have had his arm under the ball as it was grounded.
However, Irish lock Devin Toner handed Cruden an easy three points, for 22-10, as he obstructed Wyatt Crockett when the Irish were about to clear their lines.
The All Blacks started to really test the Irish resilience and, with 15 minutes remaining, they went over through replacement prop Ben Franks, with Cruden converting for 22-17, ensuring the scent of an unlikely victory filled their nostrils.
However, the indomitable spirit of the Irish shone as they drew on their last dregs of energy, pressuring the All Blacks into conceding a penalty that Sexton took an age over, but to gasps of disbelief he sent it wide of the posts.
The costliness of that miss was laid bare in the final remarkable passage of play by the All Blacks as Ryan Crotty went over in the corner and Cruden, at the second time of asking, slotted over the conversion to achieve that unlikely victory.