Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks complete perfect season (but only just)

IRELAND 22
NEW ZEALAND 24

No one does heartbreak like Ireland. Too cruel. Too cruel. This didn't really happen did it? New Zealand, 22-17 down with time up on the clock, won.

How did it happen? How could they have escaped? A penalty with time up on their 10-metre line and they ran. And they ran. And they kept the ball alive for 80 seconds and multiple phases until, it became a rub the eyes moment because Ryan Crotty was over in the corner.

Watch highlights of the game here.

But the drama was only beginning. The TMO was called in - was it a forward pass from Aaron Cruden to Dane Coles.

Didn't look like it but the crowd howled, the TMO took an age, the crowd howled some more and no one was sure. Finally, referee Nigel Owens gave it.

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Then the kick. This was a carbon copy of the Kiwis the day before but the kick was wider out. Cruden slapped it a bit and it was going to fall short but what would you believe - the Irish had broken rank early with the charge and Cruden was given another go.

He nailed it. Of course he did, and incredibly, so incredibly the All Blacks had stolen the test. Johnny Sexton had missed a penalty on 75 minutes and the penalty to give them the ball back was a bit suspect, but that's how it is in test football. There's rough and there's smooth - it's just they are always harder to take when they come at the end of the game.
With Cruden's kick, the All Blacks could claim their perfect season, but they were no doubt too stunned to take it all in.

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For 79 minutes it looked as if history would be made in Dublin. But not in the way anyone expected. Ireland after more than 100 years of trying, looked to have finally beaten the All Blacks.

There would never be a good time for this to happen from a New Zealand perspective, but somehow it would have felt worse today. This was always meant to be the All Blacks' big day: the day they made history by recording a Champagne win for the perfect season.

But as always fate conspired against Ireland. Never have they been closer. Never have they done more. Never have they so comprehensively outplayed the All Blacks. But here's the thing...79 minutes isn't enough against this crew. They didn't quite shut the door and slam, before they knew it the All Blacks were inside the house and celebrating.

To the All Blacks' credit they showed remarkable bravery, tenacity and fitness to sneak it. Everyone will remember the first 79 minutes as an Irish victory but champion teams cling on no matter what and the All Blacks deserve immense praise for never throwing it away.

They had no business winning this, because who wasn't wondering after 20 minutes if they were witnessing the worst day in All Black history. Ireland were a point a minute then and there was no sign of it slowing. They had the fury but it was controlled.

They took some brave options. Ran when they should have kicked, and hurled a few big passes that stuck. Call it the luck of the Irish but that's what teams have to do against the All Blacks. Take a few risks, be prepared to be unconventional and unsettle them.

Ireland did that aplenty. They have started how they did before - most memorably in 2001 when they reached half-time a similar margin in front having enjoyed a similar dominance.

But back then they stopped to take it all in, wondered if it was really happening and broke the spell when they did. To their credit, this time they seemed to believe and didn't get caught up trying to consolidate or defend their lead.

They were strong at the breakdown, timed their strikes when the All Blacks had the ball and cleaned up in the kick-chase game. Really cleaned up there.

The All Blacks were poor - didn't kick far enough and there was too much standing around looking at the ball.

Yet the All Blacks clawed their way back with two second half tries and pulled off their miracle. Did they deserve it? Hell yes. Was it fair on Ireland. Hell no.

Ireland 22 (C. Murray, R. Best, R. Kearney tries; J. Sexton 2 cons, pen)
New Zealand 24 (J. Savea, B. Franks, R. Crotty tries; A. Cruden 3 cons, pen)

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