Ireland were sensational, but New Zealand are special. Steve Hansen summed it up pretty accurately as his players produced a smash-and-grab performance to complete the season with a 100% record from 14 challenges.
It wasn’t any consolation, but it will be in time. It says something for this Ireland team — actually, it says a lot — that they pushed the Kiwis further than anyone; than South Africa or Australia.
Hansen took the trouble to emphasise that this was not a case of his men under-performing, or of taking Ireland for granted. It was insightful, though, to hear him suggest that maybe the Irish players didn’t always possess the self-belief needed against the world’s best.
“I’d like to congratulate Ireland on what was a sensational performance” said Hansen. “Early in the game they certainly rattled us. At 19 down, it wasn’t the script, that’s for sure. They should take a lot of credit out of their performance.
“I’m extremely proud of the 23 guys we had in our group today. To come from where we had to come from and claw our way across the line was pretty special and it says why they are a special team to be able to do that.
“But I think it’s important to acknowledge the performance from Ireland. I thought it was pretty special.
“It’s really important that you don’t see this as the All Blacks not having turned up today. They turned up but Ireland turned up as well. They forced the mistakes. It wasn’t because we weren’t mentally here because we trained really well and the preparation was good.
“But when you force mistakes and you’re good enough, as they were twice to score tries off those mistakes, you put the team that is suffering under pressure and they have to ask questions of themselves. But more importantly, you fill yourself up with self-belief.
“The Irish all of a sudden felt, ‘gee, we’re in this’. I think the question is when did they realise they were in the match? Because we expected them to be tough. Every time we play them they’re tough. But sometimes I don’t know that they believe they’re as tough as they are.
“Today [with us] 14 points down, they knew, ‘hey, we’re in this’, and all of a sudden we saw a team play way beyond what we have seen for a while. It certainly wasn’t the same performance last week.
“So I don’t think it’s about us not turning up. It’s the other way around and you should give Ireland credit for that.”
Hansen and his skipper, Richie McCaw, were in agreement that the entire thing hinged on Jonathan Sexton’s penalty, six minutes from time. There would have been no way back, even for this history-making group had the Racing Metro man slotted the kick.
“When they took their shot at goal that would have put it out to eight points, the reality is that if that went over it was probably game over,” said McCaw. “But when that missed you could see a lift in the boys, there was still a chance. And in the Irish boys, you could see they were trying to eat up as much time and sometimes the opportunity will come. From our point of view there was going to be a chance and see if we’re good enough to take it.”
Aaron Cruden’s conversion of Ryan Crotty’s try — at the second attempt — ensured the All Blacks finished the season on 14 wins from 14, but McCaw wasn’t yet feeling elation.
“At the minute it’s just relief to have got across the line today. But I think as the day goes on, and tomorrow and over the next few weeks, we’ll reflect on what has been a pretty tough year when you think about the games we have played, and the challenges we have had, to be able to win them all… I think there’s a lot of pride.”
All Blacks: The history makers
1) June 8, Auckland: defeated France, 23-13
France return to the scene of their 2011 World Cup final loss and come away from Eden Park similarly chastened as the All Blacks have to fight for a season-opening victory. They outscore the French two tries to one but a botched move form the tourists in front of the New Zealand line and a late Aaron Cruden penalty secures the win.
2) June 15, Christchurch: defeated France, 30-0
Dan who? Aaron Cruden makes light of Carter's absence through injury as the All Blacks shut out France to win the series. Cruden kicks three penalties and converts all three tries as he steers his side to a comprehensive demolition of Les Bleus.
3) June 22, New Plymouth: defeated France, 24-9
The whitewash of the French is completed but New Zealand have a tougher time of it than the previous week and a last-minute try from Beauden Barrett flatters the scoreline after Carter returns from injury to kick 14 points.
4) August 17, Sydney: defeated Australia, 47-29
New Zealand get the Rugby Championship campaign up and running with their 100th Test win over Australia as Steve Hansen's side outscore the Wallabies by six tries to two, centre Ben Smith collecting a hat-trick and Richie McCaw dotting down on his return from an eight-month sabbatical.
5) August 24, Wellington: defeated Australia, 27-16
The ABs stretch their winning run over the Wallabies in New Zealand to 14 Tests as they secure the Bledisloe Cup for the 12th year in a row, Ben Smith adding two more tries to his tally against Ewen McKenzie's Australians.
6) September 7, Hamilton: defeated Argentina, 28-13
The Pumas take a shock lead at Waikato Stadium with a Juan Manuel Leguizamon try before Carter steadies the ship with a penalty which takes his Test points total past 1400. Julian Savea and two tries from Aaron Smith hammer home the home side's superiority.
7) September 14, Auckland: defeated South Africa, 29-15
The Springboks lose their bid for New Zealand's world number one ranking as the All Blacks take advantage of Romain Poite first sin-binning and then dismissing Bismarck du Plessis for a second yellow. New Zealand No.8 Kieran Read, standing in as captain for the injured McCaw, leads by example with two tries.
8) September 28, La Plata: defeated Argentina, 33-15
A double over the Pumas is secured with a four-try bonus-point win, but not until the All Blacks had weathered a massive effort from Argentina over the first 50 minutes. Then the Kiwis blew the home side away with two tries in five minutes, from Sam Cane and that man Ben Smith, who also grabs a second.
9) October 6, Johannesburg: defeated South Africa, 38-27
The All Blacks complete their toughest assignment of the year by claiming victory at Ellis Park to win the Rugby Championship for a second year in a row but the Springboks more than play their part in a nine-try thriller that is undoubtedly the standout game of 2013.
10) October 19, Dunedin: defeated Australia, 41-33
The All Blacks return home to make a clean sweep of their Bledisloe Cup series, running amok in the first half to open up a 30-19 lead to lay the foundation for a 30th successive win on home soil which matches their own run between 2003 and 2008.
11) November 2, Tokyo: defeated Japan, 54-6
No let-up in the schedule as the bandwagon moves to the Far East but this is as routine a win as the All Blacks would like in a staging post between the championship and their season-ending tour. The world champions run in eight unanswered tries , with two from wing Charles Piutau.
12) November 9, Paris: defeated France, 26-19
The winning run over France continues but this is a hard, physical battle and the All Blacks keep their unbeaten record alive thanks to Charles Piutau, who scores on try and makes another to silence a packed Stade de France.
13) November 16, London: defeated England, 30-22
Northern Hemisphere physicality almost prevails as England try for a repeat of their Twickenham heroics 12 months previously but two late tries from the never-say-die All Blacks exposes English lapses in concentration and New Zealand are one win from history.
14) November 24, Dublin: defeated Ireland, 24-22
Well, they almost blew it, but for the second week in a row, the All Blacks' belief holds firm as they come from 19-0 down to snatch victory with 81:32 on the clock, Aaron Cruden sealing perfection with a re-taken conversion. Not especially great but the sign of a great team.
Words: Simon Lewis
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