CHICAGO — If you want to end a drought, come to the Windy City.
After 111 years, Ireland secured their first win over the All Blacks at Soldier Field, a wonderful place that has spent the past couple days celebrating the Cubs’ first World Series triumph in 108 years.
This was the best test match seen this year. As the skyscrapers of Chicago loomed large over the historic ground, Ireland and New Zealand played an epic with the cheer greeting Henshaw’s 76th-minute score to hand this city yet another moment of sporting history.
When Ireland first played the All Blacks in 1905, it was at the old Lansdowne Road in Dublin. This was an altogether different occasion, as the heroic men in green played under the beating Chicago sun to create their own slice of history.
From one to 15, they were immense. Jonathan Sexton was masterful at fly-half, while Rob Kearney repaid Joe Schmidt’s faith to put in the most assured performances at fullback. Then there was the relentless effort from Henshaw in defence. That’s before anyone mentions Conor Murray, who was outstanding and the best player on the pitch.
Then there was the pack, headed by the brilliant Jamie Heaslip, with the green machine keeping the All Blacks pack at bay. Before the match, Ireland formed a No. 8 formation to face the Haka in honour of the late, great Anthony Foley. The pack emulated his warrior spirit by putting in tackle after tackle and ensuring that anything wearing black was to have the hardest of tasks to break them down.
The introduction of TJ Perenara momentarily swung the game in New Zealand’s favour. Phil Walter/Getty Images
All week, Ireland talked about the opportunities on offer at Soldier Field — the opportunity to experience Chicago, the opportunity to have another crack at beating the All Blacks and the opportunity to make history. They ticked all three off the list with a performance focused on intelligent rugby and unwavering focus. They did not put a foot wrong in the first half and moved the All Blacks from left to right.
Then came the black wave in the second 40. That relentless, punishing, blink-and-you-miss-it attack in which the flattest of passes are thrown and defenders are left spinning on the spot.
The introduction of TJ Perenara was the moment when the game swung in the All Blacks’ favour. Aaron Smith looked out-of-sorts at scrum-half, and that pace with which they played throughout the Rugby Championship was strangely lacking. But Perenara’s introduction after 45 minutes signalled the shift up in gear.
Ireland did their best to hold on to the lead, with Conor Murray’s penalty after 59 minutes giving them a bit more of a buffer, and around the 73rd minute mark, the All Blacks machine was in top gear and Ireland looked like they were on the back foot.
But then came the turnover, the kick forward by Simon Zebo and the 5-metre scrum with four minutes left. The wonderful Murray managed to get the ball to Henshaw, and history was made.
It was the focus that was so impressive. The record 62,300 crowd watched enthralled, but Ireland never looked rattled. The All Blacks went for them in the fourth quarter of the game, but Ireland always managed to have a foothold. It was Schmidt’s rugby ethos personified — one of intelligent rugby and sticking to processes.
Chicago will be in for another night of celebration after a week when it has gone into overdrive for the Cubs. The Irish flags flew at Soldier Field, those in green bounced up and down, and for the second time in a week, folks pinched themselves and remembered loved ones who missed out on the opportunity to see history made, and smiles broke out from ear to ear while tears flowed.
On Friday, Chicago’s river was turned blue in honour of the Cubs, and who knows, they might bring out the green dye used on St. Patrick’s Day.
Tonight Chicago will be painted green with the partying going on long into the night. The Windy City is officially the new capital of sporting theatre and the place where sporting dreams come true.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY