NEW Zealand coach Steve Hansen and captain Richie McCaw saluted a “special” All Blacks team after they completed a clean sweep of victories this year with a last-gasp win over Ireland yesterday.
Hansen’s team have set new standards since he took over from Graham Henry after the World Cup victory in 2011, losing just once before becoming the first team in the professional era to win all their Test matches in a calendar year.
They had to dig deep, though, for their 14th and final win of the year when they came back from three first-half tries down to edge past Ireland 24-22 thanks to a stoppage-time converted try on a dramatic day in Dublin.
“Nineteen down. . . it wasn’t the script, that’s for sure,” said Hansen, who was full of praise for the opponents. “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, it’s a pretty special effort and it says why they are a special team.
“Everybody has a lot of faith in the group we had on the park and we just knew that if we could hold on to the ball for long enough, we were going to score but if they’d put a heart rate monitor on us, it would have been going through the roof.”
New Zealand straddled their World Cup victory two years ago with 16 consecutive wins and have twice won 15 times in a row in the last decade but this year’s run was the first so-called perfect year since the game turned professional in 1995.
They mostly flattened all before them in the southern hemisphere, and then the northern, but had a few close calls along the way, too, showing, as Ireland coach Joe Schmidt noted during the week, they have resilience to match their class.
South Africa, seen as the closest challengers to the All Black hegemony, scored four tries and twice took what looked like game-winning leads in the final game of the rugby championship, yet New Zealand still wrapped up the title with a 38-27 win.
Last week they had to survive a fightback from England, the last team to defeat them, who came back to within two points. There had been a similar scare in Paris a week earlier before they emerged victorious over France.
Then there was yesterday when an impressive Ireland side were on the verge of a first victory over them in 108 years of trying. “I’ve always been proud of All Blacks teams, you never give up and never stop believing there’s a chance,” added McCaw.
“We had 15 guys out there still believing today right to the last minute and it’s amazing what can happen.”