Ireland made history on Saturday as they held off the fast-finishing All Blacks to win the deciding third Test 32-22, becoming the first touring team in the professional era to win a series on New Zealand soil.
Ireland scored three tries before half-time in Wellington to lead 22-3 and held their nerve as New Zealand stormed back with three of their own after the interval to clinch the series 2-1.
It completed just the sixth series win by a visiting team in New Zealand and the first since France prevailed 2-0 in 1994.
The victory — Ireland’s fifth in their last eight meetings with the All Blacks — establishes Andy Farrell’s team as among the leading contenders to win next year’s World Cup in France.
“Our fans turned out tonight, but also four million people back at home for breakfast, probably having a couple of pints watching us,” said Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.
“We wanted to do them proud and we certainly did that. The effort was incredible and it’s a very special day because we’re playing against the best in the world, the very best, and to come down here and do it is very special.”
It leaves New Zealand coach Ian Foster under enormous pressure, with his side having lost four of their last five Tests.
The All Blacks have rarely been so outplayed as they were in the first half, failing to respond to a merciless Ireland side who took their chances ruthlessly.
Having looked muddled in attack and clueless on defence for 40 minutes, New Zealand mounted a rearguard after half-time, storming back to trail 25-22 entering the final quarter of the match.
But they couldn’t push on against a visiting side who created breathing room when Rob Herring crossed for their fourth try and held firm to complete one of the great series rebounds.
Ireland lost the first Test 42-19 at Eden Park two weeks ago before rebounding to win the second Test 23-12 in Dunedin.
‘We’re bloody sorry’
“It hasn’t quite sunk in,” said Ireland wing James Lowe. “We knew after the first Test that wasn’t our best performance, but we tidied things up and tried to stop New Zealand.
“Results like that, on the bounce, in New Zealand, who’d have thought?”
All Blacks captain Sam Cane said he was “gutted” with the outcome.
“We’re extremely disappointed, gutted in fact. We didn’t put on the performance that we so desperately wanted to,” he said.
“But we can’t take anything away from Ireland, they’ve been outstanding this last couple of weeks. They were too good for us tonight and we’ve got some work to do.
“We’re bloody sorry that we couldn’t put the performances out there that you (the fans) deserve.”
For the third time in the series, Ireland dominated the opening exchanges and were able to create a try inside the first five minutes, when Josh van der Flier was driven over from a lineout.
The tourists took control in the 15 minutes before the interval, fashioning two superbly-executed tries to fullback Hugo Keenan and outside centre Robbie Henshaw.
Ireland’s manipulation of New Zealand’s defence to put Henshaw over encapsulated the first-half gulf between the teams, with quick ruck speed and accurate passing leaving the home side grasping at thin air.
New Zealand’s fightback began when their best player, back-row forward Ardie Savea, reached out to score after the ball went through 23 phases.
The game’s most contentious moment followed, when Ireland prop Andrew Porter was shown a yellow card following a head clash as he tried to tackle Brodie Retallick, who suffered a head injury and was replaced.
Cane asked English referee Wayne Barnes why Porter wasn’t red carded, as New Zealand prop Angus Ta’avao had been for a similar incident in the second Test loss in Dunedin.
The hosts still capitalised on their temporary one-man advantage, with flanker Akira Ioane busting past three defenders to score and reduce the margin to five points.
Sexton landed a penalty to restore Ireland’s eight-point cushion before lightning-heeled wing Will Jordan burst clear and outsprinted Sexton to close the gap to 25-22.
With momentum against Ireland, they turned the tide when replacement hooker Herring drove over from an attacking lineout, Sexton converted and never looked like conceding again as they saw out the final 10 minutes.