Ireland came agonisingly close to a first ever win over New Zealand on Sunday – only to see their big chance disappear in the final play of the game.
Brian O’Driscoll will now retire at the end of the season without a win over the All Blacks after a late, late try from Ryan Crotty and a retaken Aaron Cruden conversion broke Irish hearts.
The dramatic finale saw New Zealand somehow secure a 24-22 win in a sensational game as the world champions ended 2013 with a perfect run of 14 wins from 14 games, the first international team of the professional era to record a 100% return in a calendar year.
Ireland stunned the top team in the world with a devastating first-half performance as tries from Conor Murray, Rory Best and Rob Kearney helped them to a 19-0 lead after 18 minutes and a 22-7 halftime advantage. Jonathan Sexton added seven points from two conversions and a penalty.
But New Zealand proved their pedigree as World Cup winners when they clawed their way back into contention after the break and held Ireland scoreless in the second-half.
Their comeback began with a 53rd minute penalty from Cruden before a Ben Franks try, converted by Cruden, left five points in it, 22-17, in the 65th minute.
Sexton missed a penalty and the opportunity to put eight points between the teams with as many minutes remaining before the last gasp try and conversion from the visitors proved decisive.
Ireland have now gone 108 years and 28 games without a win over the All Blacks and new coach Joe Schmidt, himself a Kiwi, knows they may never get a better chance.
Schmidt told the post match press conference: “We were in possession with a minute to go. To be a minute away from history and have the ball in your hands on their 10-metre line, well it’s devastating.
“I guess you sum it up as a step forward but a missed opportunity. You don’t get too many opportunities to play the All Blacks and to stop them doing something that’s pretty special.
“It would have been a feather in our caps to be the ones to knock them over. We lost a few guys with injury and we started to look a bit piecemeal out there.
“I thought we were pretty dynamic in those first 20 minutes and pretty good for the lead we made. They put a lot of pressure on us in the second-half and the defence in the end is disappointing but it’s cumulative.
“We made a lot of tackles in the second-half and that started to show. We were hanging on by a thread and the thread was just a little bit too thin to make sure we could stop them.”
Cruden was handed a second chance to land the match-winning conversion after Ireland had rushed his first kick.
Schmidt added: “A draw was as good as a loss to us. We haven’t won in 108 years of trying against this opposition and we didn’t want to just do what had been done before.
“If a player moves once he’s stood still, our players felt he had. For me he’d already done it once, it wasn’t so smart to do it the second time.
“If the referee’s happy he hasn’t started his movement towards the ball then he can award another kick. But it’s not relevant for us here.”