- Associated Press
Saturday, November 17, 2018

Ireland is No. 1.

At least to New Zealand coach Steve Hansen.

His All Blacks, the undisputed No. 1 for nine years, lost to the Irish 16-9 on Saturday for the first time in Dublin. Hansen immediately dubbed Ireland the favorite for the Rugby World Cup next year.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, a potential successor to Hansen as All Blacks coach, wasn’t fussed about Hansen’s comment. The All Blacks won’t be officially losing their No. 1 ranking yet.

“We were at home, and they were coming off a long series of games where they have travelled around the world a number of times. I thought the crowd were phenomenal. And that’s a lot of things stacked in our favor,” Schmidt said.

“So we’ll take tonight, and leave 11 months’ time for 11 months’ time.”

The soonest New Zealand and Ireland can meet again is in the Rugby World Cup final in Japan next October. It won’t be soon enough after this gripping test.

The blockbuster matchup of No. 1 and No. 2, the champions of each hemisphere, lived up to the hype. Ireland edged a heavy-duty first half, and in a more open second half produced a classic try and kept New Zealand tryless for the first time since last year’s Lions tour.

At a highly charged Lansdowne Road, Ireland became the only team to beat New Zealand twice since the All Blacks won a second straight Rugby World Cup in 2015. The first time was in 2016 in Chicago, Ireland’s first win over New Zealand in 111 years.

Even with that mental block gone, this victory was far more impressive: New Zealand was closer to full strength, and more aware of Ireland’s threats.

But those didn’t matter.

Even after enduring a hugely physical first half that was exhausting just to watch, Ireland had the wherewithal to execute a try-scoring move from a lineout on halfway. Flyhalf Jonathan Sexton switched play to Bundee Aki running to the short side, and wing Jacob Stockdale chipped ahead. The best player of the Six Nations brushed past the surprised All Blacks, regathered and slid in.

Sexton converted from wide out for 16-6 with half an hour to go, and put the pressure right back on the All Blacks.

But the world champions could score just one more penalty.

Knock-ons and spills plagued the All Blacks in front of a fast-rushing defense which squeezed the visitors.

Flanker Peter O’Mahony exemplified Ireland in the middle of the second half when he swiped a grubber kick just in front of All Blacks wing Ben Smith in the Ireland 22, then trapped ruck ball to force a penalty against the All Blacks to thwart another attack. He was then replaced, with 17 minutes to go, and walked off to a standing ovation.

New Zealand was upping the tempo and finding holes on the outside of the Irish defense, but ruining attacks with errors. Beauden Barrett offloaded to Ireland fullback Rob Kearney, and another attack died when a lineout throw-in went to Ireland.

Barrett kicked a penalty and the All Blacks trailed by seven with 11 minutes to go.

Ireland was still far from safe. In the last six weeks, the All Blacks won from 17 behind in Pretoria, and from 15 behind at Twickenham.

With less than two minutes left, the All Blacks finally got out of their half. They worked the ball from deep to the Ireland 22 as the clock moved into injury time. Ireland had seen this before, in 2013, when the All Blacks pulled a converted try out of their hat in injury time to win.

But the Irish defense firmed at the 22 and the All Blacks stalled, a knock on ending their 16-test unbeaten run in Dublin since 1905.

The Irish considered this their best chance to beat New Zealand at home. Having swept the Six Nations and won a historic series in Australia this year, their squad is deep and confident. They blew the cobwebs off against Argentina last week, and welcomed a New Zealand side that has been winning but not dominating.

The All Blacks started impressively but after five minutes they were pinned back, and spent most of the rest of the half on defense. In giving away a whopping nine penalties under pressure, the All Blacks were warned a yellow card was coming by referee Wayne Barnes.

But halftime arrived, and the All Blacks had conceded three Sexton penalties and almost two tries: Kearney’s was disallowed when video revealed he knocked on trying to control the ball on the ground, and No. 8 CJ Stander was held up over the line.

In reply, Barrett landed a penalty and his second dropped goal in two tests. By halftime, they were flattered to be trailing by only three points.

Then they missed a chance when captain Kieran Read charged down Stockdale but knocked on.

Irish relief turned into rousing cheers just three minutes later when Stockdale slid across the tryline.

Not long after, there was no doubting who was No. 1.


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