WELLINGTON: Ireland captain Johnny Sexton said "it doesn't get much better than this" after his side beat the All Blacks 32-22 in the third and final Test on Saturday, 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.
Sexton made no apology for his team's unbridled celebrations at the final whistle.
"I'm sure there's lots of smiling faces across the country. It doesn't get much better than this," Sexton said.
"It's the biggest respect we can give New Zealand. The celebrations probably weren't the most humble but that shows how much it means to us.
Foster under fire
"I don't think we could be much prouder."
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 opponents 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 with 14 minutes to go 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 winning the second Test 23-12 in Dunedin.
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.
'We never panicked'
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 was sparked when Ardie Savea, reached out to score after the ball went through 23 phases to start the second half.
Ireland prop Andrew Porter was controversially shown only a yellow card following for clashing heads in a tackle on Brodie Retallick, who suffered a broken cheek and had to be 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.
Flanker Akira Ioane burst past three defenders to reduce the margin to five points while Ireland were down to 14 men.
Sexton landed a penalty to restore Ireland's eight-point cushion but lightning-heeled wing Will Jordan raced clear to close the gap to 25-22.
Ireland swung the momentum decisively back in their favour when replacement hooker Herring drove over, Sexton converted and never looked like conceding again.
"We lost game one and our backs were against the wall," said head coach Farrell.
"This is the hardest thing that you can do by a country mile in rugby, especially when you take it down to the last game and we know from history that the All Blacks will come out firing.
"The most pleasing thing for me by a long stretch was the composure when they came back at us.
"We never got ahead of ourselves when we were in front and we never panicked."