Ireland tore up the script in Christchurch with a storming display of hard-edged forward play and precise probing from the backs, but a Dan Carter drop goal robbed them of a draw - the least they deserved - right at the death.
The Match - As It Happened
Conor Murray’s first international try lit the touch-paper for undoubtedly Ireland’s best ever performance on New Zealand soil, giving them a real shot at ending Ireland’s long wait for a win over the All Blacks.
His half-back partner Jonathan Sexton settled into his stride with two excellent touch-finding kicks in the opening minutes, and there was a bout of strong carrying from Kevin McLaughlin, Donnacha Ryan and Jamie Heaslip.
Profiting from that direct style, Ireland won a penalty out wide on the right and after the shot at the posts was turned down, Rory Best combined with Ryan in the lineout to set up a maul drive.
New Zealand brought the maul down close to their try-line but Murray sniped off the base of the ruck, dummying his way past Owen Franks’ challenge from just a metre out.
In seizing his opportunity, the young scrum half stretched out to place the ball on the line with confirmation coming through from the television match official.
The conversion and a subsequent penalty from Sexton, who was at his authorative best, gave the tourists an early 10-0 lead with the Heaslip-led back row maintaining a high tempo up front.
Heaslip’s 50th Irish cap will go down as one of his best but New Zealand’s clinical edge was in evidence again when a series of penalties were punished by the left boot of Dan Carter.
He converted three of four first half kicks to make it 10-9 at half-time, but Ireland were getting in their faces and preventing them from finding gaps.
The reunited centre partnership of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy epitomised the defensive graft of the men in green, with front rowers Best and Cian Healy to the fore in terms of effective tackling and counter-rucking.
Julian Savea, the All Blacks’ hat-trick hero from the first Test, could not get into the game and looked exposed under the high balls that Murray and Sexton send skywards.
Sean O’Brien’s thumping tackle on Carter summed up Ireland’s desire to outmuscle the World champions, the Tullow man’s influence at the breakdown was another plus for the men in green.
However, two needless ruck offences from Mike Ross and Dan Tuohy led to Carter moving his side onto nine points. He also tried his luck with a monster penalty in injury-time, but his kick fell short of the posts and Declan Kidney’s men could draw breath at 10-9.
Disappointingly, that slender advantage was erased just two minutes into the second half when Carter’s half-back partner Aaron Smith was driven over in the right corner.
Carter added the extras but Ireland never let the intensity drop, maintaining a ferocious work-rate at the coal face with O’Brien, Healy, Ryan and McLaughlin in brutish form.
Most importantly, the tourists were swift to respond on the scoreboard. Murray’s adventure from the restart was rewarded with a penalty that Sexton fired over in the 46th minute.
Ireland built again from their own half, Best’s accurate lineout throwing setting up quick ball and an inviting pass from Andrew Trimble sent the all-action Healy barging into the hosts’ 22.
The distribution and attacking intelligence of Sexton, a bloodied O’Driscoll and replacement Ronan O’Gara, who came on for a hobbling D’Arcy, kept Ireland pressing for scores and forced New Zealand onto the back foot again.
The All Blacks looked rattled as Carter miscued a drop goal attempt. The same player landed a much-needed penalty on the hour mark but rather than falling away, Ireland raised their efforts superbly in the final quarter to allow Sexton boot them back level.
The Leinster out-half split the posts twice in quick succession to give Kidney’s charges some serious momentum as a grandstand finish ensued.
The durability of the Irish front row was obvious as they began to pressurise the home scrum, winning the decision for Sexton’s 64th minute penalty.
Handling errors from Richie McCaw did little to settle his side and with their confidence flowing, Ireland broke from deep with replacement Peter O’Mahony’s well-timed pass putting Sexton into space for a neat kick through.
After Ali Williams infringed at a ruck in front of the posts, Sexton composed himself to bring Ireland level with 68 minutes on the clock. A grandstand finish ensued.
It was a pulsating second Test, arguably the greatest contest between these nations, and held the 20,669 spectators present and those watching around the world spellbound.
Yet more drama followed when Israel Dagg was yellow carded for catching Rob Kearney late after the Irish full-back had got his kick away.
The penalty from where the ball landed gave Sexton an opportunity to edge Ireland back in front from just inside the New Zealand half. His attempt was on target but did not have the required distance and dropped short of the posts.
Moments later, a harsh penalty call against a now dominant Irish scrum gave the All Blacks an opportunity to hunt for a match-winning score.
They were able to retain possession and set up Carter for a hurried drop goal that missed the target to the right, although O’Brien had got his fingers to it and Ireland conceded a five-metre scrum.
With only seconds left, the New Zealand scrum held firm and Piri Weepu clawed the ball back for Carter to squeeze the decisive drop goal over from close range. It was an ugly kick but it crept over and Ireland, despite being the better side, were left with nothing to show for their lion-hearted efforts.
Steve Hansen’s side deserve credit for backing themselves to get the result, especially having lost Dagg to the sin-bin. It was an up-and-down 80 minutes from the hosts but they dug it out and showed that ruthless streak again when it mattered most.
McCaw received the Steinlager Series trophy following the All Blacks’ second win on the trot over the tourists, yet next week’s third Test is far from being a ‘dead rubber’. Does history beckon for Ireland in Hamilton? A repeat performance may well see them rewarded in the season finale.