All Blacks: Character, composure keys to Grand Slam

By Chris Barclay

After honouring the miners of Pike River with a Grand Slam-winning performance, All Black management revisited a dark day in New Zealand's rugby history when assessing the significance of last night's 37-25 defeat of Wales.

An unsuccessful visit to the Millennium Stadium three years ago was a reference point as Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith and their captain Richie McCaw reflected on the triumphant conclusion to a season that has yielded 13 victories and just a solitary loss - the Bledisloe Cup stopover in Hong Kong en route to the UK and Ireland.

The current All Black squad joined 1978's pioneering tour party and Henry's classes of 2005 and 2008 as conquerors of the home unions - but the World Cup quarterfinal loss to France still haunts the quartet less than a year out from New Zealand hosting the next tournament.

Hansen believed the manner in which the All Blacks eventually subdued a stubborn Welsh side stung by last weekend's draw with Fiji would stand them in good stead when the Webb Ellis Trophy is showcased on home soil next September.

He did not refer to the nadir of the coaching trio's All Black tenure specifically, but there was no doubt which match Hansen was referring to when lauding New Zealand's ability to pull away from a slender 13-12 lead while Daniel Braid languished in the sin bin for delaying tactics at a breakdown inside their 22-metre zone.

Rather than struggle in the face of adversity, as they did when a braying crowd of 74,000 willed France to a 20-18 victory in 2007, the All Blacks maintained composure and produced three clinical tries to guarantee a 24th consecutive win over the Welsh.

"This game was ideal for us," assistant coach Hansen said.

"At times we were in similar situations to what we were in another game at Cardiff, and (yesterday) we actually showed our maturity and ended up winning reasonably comfortably. In that other game we didn't and we went home with long faces."

The current 29-man squad fragments today in a happier frame of mind after denying Wales a win coveted for 57 years.

It was one that looked conceivable when Braid, a first half replacement for the injured Kieran Read, was yellow carded by Irish referee Alan Lewis in the 50th minute.

Stephen Jones goaled the resulting penalty, but a missed touch finder by Lee Byrne after the All Blacks infringed again two minutes later transferred momentum irretrievably to New Zealand as Hosea Gear completed as classical counter attack in the left hand corner.

Isaia Toeava was also the beneficiary of a fluffed clearance by James Hook when he crossed in the 72nd minute; replacement prop John Afoa then recorded the first try of his 30-test career courtesy of a 35m burst in the 76th minute before Byrne scored a consolation try in added time.

Henry, who has now coordinated three successful Grand Slam campaigns, also credited his team's composure during Braid's temporary absence.

"That becomes a very telling situation is a game like this so to have the character to come through do the job and score some great tries is pretty special. I was delighted with the character of the side."

Henry's counterpart Warren Gatland was heavily scrutinised after the Fiji stalemate for panning individuals performances; he could not help himself being critical again, singling out Byrne's failure to find touch as the turning point.

"It was massive wasn't it? We had got back to 13-12, we had all the momentum and I thought the All Blacks looked a bit rattled."

Gatland was upset four of the All Blacks' five tries were instigated by poor clearing kicks but saw a glimmer of hope after seven tests without a win, Wales' worst losing streak since the 10 experienced on Hansen's watch in 2003.

"The players know with a bit more accuracy they are not too far away from the best team in the world," he said.

The All Blacks were hardly at the peak of their powers in the final test of an arduous season though key contributors stepped up, as expected.

Mils Muliaina was outstanding at fullback, Jerome Kaino produced a man of the match winning shift on the blindside flank while McCaw typically made a nuisance of himself at the tackle area.

Dan Carter had an average night with the boot but goaled the penalty that mattered in the eighth minute - a 48m effort that saw him eclipse Jonny Wilkinson as test rugby's greatest point scorer.

All Blacks 2010 test rugby season

*June 12 beat Ireland 66-28 at New Plymouth
*June 19 beat Wales 42-9 at Dunedin
*June 26 beat Wales 29-10 at Hamilton
*July 10 beat South Africa 32-12 at Auckland
*July 17 beat South Africa 31-17 at Wellington
*July 31 beat Australia at 49-28 Melbourne
*Aug 7 beat Australia at 20-10 Christchurch
*Aug 22 beat South Africa 29-22 at Johannesburg
*Sept 11 beat Australia 23-22 at Sydney
*Oct 30 lost to Australia 24-26 at Hong Kong
*Nov 6 beat England 26-16 at London
*Nov 13 beat Scotland 49-3 at Edinburgh
*Nov 20 beat Ireland 38-18 at Dublin
*Nov 27 beat Wales 37-25 at Cardiff

- NZPA

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