Bearded Ryan Crotty revels in ABs close shave
As unlikely heroes go, Canterbury's bearded wonder Ryan Crotty is right up there.
The unassuming 25-year-old wasn't even a regular All Black till this tour; now he's the toast of the best rugby team on the planet after crossing for the try - with a little help from Aaron Cruden's touchline conversion - that sealed the first perfect test year in the professional era.
Crotty has become the late-season designated midfield cover and saw action off the bench against Japan, France and England. But none of his earlier efforts matched his impact yesterday as he broke 52,000 Irish hearts at a rowdy Aviva Stadium.
The All Blacks had looked out for the count when ace Irish kicker Jonny Sexton lined up a handy kick with six minutes left that would have extended a 22-17 lead to eight. But that drifted wide and inside the final minutes the All Blacks were able to win a penalty that launched the move that Crotty finished in the left corner.
Typically humble, he paid due credit to fellow bench man Dane Coles for laying on a heck of an offload.
"With regards to the try, I guess I was Johnny on the spot a wee bit. I owe Colesy a few beers over the summer, he gave me a nice little offload, a good plum. I'm excited, very proud, and I guess now I can rest easy over the summer."
Crotty said he was never concerned when the try was sent to the TMO to check on two of the passes, and had a good feeling about Cruden's two-pointer, even though it take him a couple of efforts.
"Azza [Cruden] has kicked a few clutch kicks against us, so it was nice for him to nail one when we're on the same team," he said.
"There was a lot of pressure, and I don't know why they did that on the charge. He's a class player and if you give him another opportunity like that he's not going to miss it."
But if there's been one encouraging aspect of the All Blacks' problematic last three weeks, it's been their coolness under pressure. They've made the plays when they've had to, and yesterday was no different as they surged upfield for the game-winning try.
"It was very high-tempo, guys were hitting rucks hard, cleaning bodies, and they started to get a bit tired, and narrow a bit. That's why we went wide a couple of times, and I just remember hitting a couple of rucks and then reloading to width because everyone else had good space inside.
"I guess it was a good place to go because the ball eventually came my way."
It's a brilliant finish to a pretty solid year from Crotty. His game may be more solid than spectacular, but the national coaches like his poise and he's rapt with his late-season flourish.
He's also lapping up the experiences. From Stade de France to Twickenham to an Aviva Stadium so loud the All Blacks couldn't even communicate calls, he's treasured every moment of this trip.
None more so than the final one yesterday: "It's very special, hard to explain really. That's a try no one can ever take away from me and something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
New Zealand 24 (Ryan Crotty, Ben Franks, Julian Savea tries Aaron Cruden 3 cons pen) Ireland 22 (Rory Best, Rob Kearney, Conor Murray tries Jonathan Sexton 2 cons pen) at Aviva Stadium. HT: 7-22. Referee: Nigel Owens.