England 22 New Zealand 30
Many things set this astonishing New Zealand side apart, but if you had to pick one part of their psyche that makes all the difference it is their dogged determination to treat the extraordinary as purely mundane.
With 18 minutes to go in a pulsating Test match at Twickenham the All Blacks were rocking after their 17-3 lead was transformed into a 22-20 deficit.
Then Ma’a Nonu ran at Courtney Lawes and Ben Morgan before somehow producing an outrageousoffload that allowed Julian Savea a run-in for his second try of the game and the score that broke England’s resolve.
The 30-22 victory means New Zealand head to Dublin this week knowing another win will see them enter the history books as the first side in the professional era to finish a calendar year with a perfect record. And while they all claimed to be fully respectful of Ireland, it is the knowledge that they can produce moments of genuine inspiration when in desperate need that means they will be overwhelming favourites to complete the job.
“As a team we expect absolutely anything to happen,” said Savea with a smile. “The skills we have been working on all year are always growing. We expect anything to happen and I was there to finish it off when Ma’a did something pretty amazing. That’s the beauty of playing outside someone like that.
“As a team we don’t really think about going unbeaten all year. I guess records [motivate us] but it’s more about doing it individually. We want to get better as players each week and better our skills — then as a team it comes. We speak about trust and it comes down to that; we have to trust each other.
“I’ve never even been to Dublin so I don’t know what to expect of the place. It will be an interesting day and we have to get up for it again.”
There were moments on Saturday when you thought the All Blacks may have become complacent, although that could have had more to do with a fantastic effort by the England forwards.
Certainly, after Ireland’s hugely disappointing display against Australia later in the day, there should be genuine fears about what Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock and the incomparable Kieran Read could do at the Aviva Stadium. And when history is staring them in the face, gently ushering the All Blacks forward, it is hard to see them slipping up now.
“We have given ourselves the opportunity [to make history],” said McCaw.
“But the key to doing that is not just turning up and hoping it will happen. Come Monday we are back on the job to prepare for another match. If we go and perform we give ourselves a chance. It will be nice to reflect if we do that but it won’t just happen. We have a week to get ourselves right to take that opportunity.”
Yet England showed enough to give Ireland hope. The physical threat offered by Billy Vunipola, Lawes and Joe Launchbury was at times too much for the All Blacks, and Chris Robshaw was adept at pointing out to referee Craig Joubert exactly where New Zealand were infringing.
The All Blacks were rattled, particularly with the referee, while key men such as Liam Messam did not show their best. Yet they have the killer touch. Read set up the first try with a sumptuous offload to Savea with less than two minutes gone and scored the second himself.
But the England pack brought the hosts back into it and they briefly took the lead before Nonu’s moment of brilliance ensured they faded in the last 20 minutes. It was the reaction from New Zealand that demonstrated just why they are the best in the business, however.
“When you play like we do every week those things are happening every week,” said head coach Steve Hansen in typically dry, understated style.
“They aren’t that ‘wow’. What is important about that offload is that he wasn’t trying to do something under pressure from players or the scoreboard without having done it before. It wasn’t a new thing, it was natural. He thought ‘it’s on so I’ll pass it’, and that’s what he did.
“What the players went through against England and against France shows that mental fortitude is important. Staying on task and trusting yourself and your team-mates is important. You can’t rely on someone else to do it.”
And everyone in this All Blacks side can do it. There are numerous ‘key men’ but it is perhaps Read — the captain in waiting once McCaw steps aside — who is most astonishing. The No 8 deserves to be named IRB Player of the Year, and it is hard to escape the thought that he could be an accomplished international centre or wing.
If he can be disrupted or Aaron Cruden — almost certain to play with Dan Carter suffering with an Achilles’ tendon injury — can be denied quick ball then miracles can happen. But always expect an All Black to step up when required.
ENGLAND: M Brown, C Ashton, J Tomkins (A Goode 77), B Twelvetrees, B Foden, O Farrell (T Flood 67), L Dickson (B Youngs 65), D Marler (M Mullan 77), D Hartley (T Youngs 50), D Cole (D Wilson 77), J Launchbury (G Parling 46), C Lawes, T Wood, R Robshaw, B Vunipola (B Morgan 57).
NEW ZEALAND: I Dagg, C Piutau (R Crotty 71), B Smith, M Nonu, J Savea, D Carter (A Cruden 26), A Smith (T Kerr-Barlow 71), T Woodcock (W Crockett 41), K Mealamu (D Coles 61), O Franks (C Faumuina 43), B Retallick (L Romano 67), S Whitelock, L Messam (S Luatua 65), R McCaw, L Read.
Referee: Craig Joubert (Fra).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved