It was an instant Rugby World Cup classic
In the aftermath of the dizzying, draining quarter-final between Ireland and New Zealand, Irish boss Andy Farrell described the 28-24 loss as “fitting of a final”. And it couldn’t have fit more snuggly.
You might assume that instant classics have to be masterpieces – but the very best matches in history dance bewilderingly between excellence, stakes and mistakes. It’s the ramping tensions that makes what is still to unfold so fascinating. So while there was some truly exceptional rugby played, the errors simply added to the event.
Uncertainty of outcome is also vital to the very best sporting events and in Paris, until the final defensive stand when New Zealand soaked up attacking carries for 37 phases, we had to wait for a greyed Sam Whitelock to kill off Ireland’s hopes before we knew for sure who’d win it. The clock had ticked past 84 minutes.
Reasons this ranks amongst the greatest matches ever
We witnessed punch and counter punch. The All Blacks saw yellow twice and still led for the whole match. There were missed kicks and the two-way-swing of Ronan Kelleher peeling off a maul for what looked for all the world like a winning try – only for a match-saving hold-up over the line from desperately defending Jordie Barrett.
We saw wave after wave of green carries. New Zealand tore through for a Will Jordan score when Richie Mo’unga took ball straight from the lineout and, with an unfathomably large support cast of would-be runners at his sides, tore through a gap himself to set things in motion.
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Bundee Aki scored a try befitting of his incredible tournament, catching a high pass, a pas-de-bas away from Rieko Ioane and then a surge beyond any All Black.
But underscoring it all was this building sense. Perhaps it was dread for some. Perhaps it was growing belief for others. But it was there, even if you couldn’t get at it, like that mystery itch in the middle of your head.
Hampered by their own ridiculous draw years before the event, World Rugby had to sit back and watch this superb, dramatic event. By the end of today, two of the very best sides in the world will be dumped out of the tournament. As Farrell said, this is life and sport is “cruel.”
But these quarter-finals are also the perfect advertisement for the best of the sport. And for all the complaints about the days of nothing between weekends of action that could sell rugby union to the uninitiated during the pool phase, this match had all the drama of a telenovela on x3 speed.
Bidding farewell to heroes
And at the end of one of the greatest matches a Rugby World Cup has seen, we bid farewell to characters who feel like they’ve been in our lives since we could breathe.
Johnny Sexton was fighting back tears as he called it a day. Keith Earls is also done. A crestfallen Ireland have to dust themselves off, and start building towards another new era. They deserve all of the credit for their winning streak under Andy Farrell.
Yet in four years time, it’s unavoidable, the chat of a quarter-final curse will bubble up again. The All Blacks know better than anyone how to navigate this terrain.
But perhaps overly sensibly, we shouldn’t look too far ahead. Instead, be happy we got to witness such a spectacle. Fitting of a final and, we hope rather naively, an influence on the rest of the knockouts.
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