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Far Away Fields Are Greener, The Near Ones Are Still Black

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Far away fields are greener but today, far away they still remain. The All Blacks were in town, with them they had a box that contained Irish rugby history. That box was open for eighty minutes yesterday before they unapologetically stuffed the history books back in and closed the lid, as we watched on helplessly. I knew walking into the stadium yesterday that it felt different. The crowd were up for it, more importantly the players were really up for it. Sport is cruel, it wouldn’t carry with it the highs and lows that it does otherwise. There is however no sport on the planet that could have had so much at stake during a ‘friendly’. Last week’s display was still fresh in the minds of the home support but they were up for ‘giving it a go’, Irish teams seem to play better for some reason when nothing is expected of them, when a good performance will count as a result. The air was thick as the formalities got underway, if I swung a samurai sword at that point in time, it would have stuck fast in the unyielding thickness of atmosphere. Three national anthems later we were ready for that tradition of all traditions. As far as watching grown men slap their legs and arms in an act of intimidation goes, yesterday’s didn’t weigh in with the threat that it usually carries. It was short and sweet, too short, too sweet.

The game was on, alive from the start. The intensity that followed was immense to say the least, this was going to be a dog fight, the green jerseys were flying in to support one another, the musketeers motto ringing in their heads. Lost causes became fifty-fifty chances, this was the secret to beating the all famous All Blacks. New Zealand seemed stunned, uncomfortable with these lesser men pushing them around, they went backwards, we marched defiantly forward. Then it happened, we scored. Ireland 7 New Zealand 0, really? Game on again, more intensity, it happened again, Ireland 14 New Zealand 0, no way? If this were a boxing match, the ref would have being asking the All Blacks if they were ok to continue. The crowd rose even further, the big hits were accompanied with big roars of approval, the All Blacks sweat, they bleed, they were human. Game on again, could this really be happening? New Zealand decided to fight fire with fire and pushed us back towards our own line, their desire lifted a level, here they come, this is what they are all about. Trying desperately to get into the game, they make mistakes, uncharacteristic mistakes. It’s an interception, Rob Kearney sprints down the wing for all his worth, there’s no one home. I start to plan which wall I am going to put my framed ticket from this famous day on. Grown men in the stands are looking into each others eyes, strangers nearly hug but pull back at the last second. The emotion is unbearable, it is soup like in the air, I look to the scoreboard, the clock says 17.37, Ireland 19 New Zealand 0. Johnny hits the post with the conversion, who cares? This is our day, God Damn it this is ours.

The All Blacks are getting more desperate, their hits become harder, their running stronger, they have to get a foot on this ladder before Ireland take the ladder away altogether. They manage to get a foot on the first rung after 25 minutes of play. Cruden plays a sublime grubber to break the Irish line and Savea runs an impossible to stop line, gathers with apparent ease and touches the ball down unopposed. Away scores, no matter how good are never really acknowledged but this was top class, it was made look easy with the precision that it was executed at. Ireland 19 New Zealand 7. Ok, ‘sure they were bound to score at some time’, a voice behind me reasons. Still it felt like the Titanic had just rubbed off the ice. It’s hard to believe that only 32 minutes have passed since this game kicked off, but now Johnny Sexton is lining up a penalty, this will ease the growing tension. Slotted successfully, Ireland 22 New Zealand 7. I’m now fully paid up and emotionally invested. The score doesn’t change before half time. There is no doubt, none whatsoever, that this is our day. The All Blacks look tired, we have them.

I have watched big sporting events before and have always wondered at the weirdos that the television cameras zoom in on as tears flow for their team. What kind of person cries at a game? It’s only a game, right? As the second half got into full flow, an emotion came over me. An alien emotion that could only be explained away by cutting onions. With no onions in sight, I wondered why this meant so much? How were that team on the pitch sucking me in to feeling like this? I didn’t know anyone on that pitch personally, I didn’t have any investment in the outcome but I somehow felt part of it all. Pride, it was pure and undiluted, raw pride. The second half started well for the home team, they still looked like the same team that had outperformed, outmuscled and more importantly outscored the All Blacks in the first half. I felt we needed to score first, doubting Thomas was tipping me on the shoulder, we’ll never hang on. 51 minutes into this epic clash and Cruden slots home a penalty, Ireland 22 New Zealand 10. Twelve point lead, they still needed two scores and my friend the clock was gathering pace towards eighty minutes. 54 minutes gone and Brian O’Driscoll leaves the field, I look to the big screen hoping to see blood but there is none. He doesn’t return to the action, turns out it was concussion, the rugby gods are changing their tune, the Titanic is taking on water. I look to the clock again, someone needs to check it, it’s not moving, not fast enough anyway. 64th minute, Ben Franks crashes over our try line, Cruden converts, Ireland 22 New Zealand 17. Start handing out the life jackets.

Can we possibly hang on here now is the question? The crowd is getting jittery, a five point lead against the mighty All Blacks, is it enough? 68 minutes gone, Johnny Sexton tries a cross field kick to the wing, Tommy Bowe is hurtling towards the pass like a train, come on GAA Tommy will catch it. Oh no, Barrett intercepts. This is painful, the crowd groan around me, ‘Jesus, Johnny what are you thinking?’ someone shouts to the pitch. If Bowe had fielded that ball, Sexton would have been lauded for his quick thinking, his ability to kick, an inch out and it’s hero to zero time. Anyway we still lead, we are still beating the All Blacks, history beckons. 73 minutes, Ireland are piling on the pressure, they are where they want to be, camped contently in the New Zealand 22. Come on boys, stick the marshmallows on a piece of wire, light a fire and make yourselves comfortable. Nigel Owens blows sharply on his whistle, a collapsed maul, penalty to Ireland, this is it, this to win the game, eight point lead and it’s all over. Johnny places the ball as the clock passes 73, it’s nearly at 75 before he kicks it. Misses, what? No. It just occurs to me that no more than five minutes before the kick, Sexton was rolling around the deck in agony. He slowly dragged himself up, maybe he shouldn’t have kicked it. Hindsight, the friend of criticism. It’s ok though, still a five point lead, only 5 minutes left.

There’s some ferocious ball carrying from here to the finish. Surely all we have to do is hang on to the ball, simple, right? Oh no, penalty New Zealand. The sign of true champions is scoring when you really have to. The game is full of running, full of line breaks and during normal time, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. To have the ball with time up, knowing that only a try can save you from defeat and to carry out that mission is only for the best of the best. Nine phases after the penalty was awarded, Crotty walks over the Irish line in the corner. Ireland 22 New Zealand 22. Women and children first, we don’t have enough life boats. It didn’t matter what happened with the conversion, a draw would have been as much as a loss to us. The emotion has been sucked out of me. Was it still now, the best game I had ever witnessed? Even losing, I’m going to say yes.

Last night I sat and read match reports of the goings on in the Aviva. For me and I know many will disagree but I feel there is far too much criticism. I don’t know if it was the emotional involvement that I experienced but I can’t bring myself to slate any man that wore the green jersey yesterday. Yes, Sexton would probably kick that penalty nine times out of ten, maybe even ten out of ten normally, the weight of history can be a burden. Murray box kicking when retaining possession was probably more important, the list can go on and on. Yesterday I felt a pride that I haven’t felt in a while, maybe that glorious day in Croke Park when we welcomed the English in with open arms and then proceeded to beat them up once inside.

Ten minutes after the final whistle, we remained in our seats, watching the All Blacks walk around the pitch, saluting the away support. They looked battered and bruised but wore smiles that only sit on winners faces. Andrew Hore, the New Zealand hooker came into the stand to talk to a familiar face. His friend handed him a pint of Guinness, he downed it in one and why not? He deserved it. I had not witnessed Ireland’s first ever win over the All Blacks but I had witnessed a come back that must rank up there among the best. One last look to the field, our dreams were so close to being fulfilled but were ultimately shattered. I was shattered, tired, drained of all emotion. The remains of the Titanic disappeared silently into the ocean. I refuse to look at anything from today bar the positives, it may be a romantic notion but with that kind of performance in the Six Nations, Ireland can and will compete with the best. Can we reproduce it though? One can only live in hope.

Image courtesy of The Guardian

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