All Blacks: Hunt for perfection makes ABs look invincible

By Oliver Brown

The All Blacks are in pursuit of 80-minute perfection. Photo / Getty Images
The All Blacks are in pursuit of 80-minute perfection. Photo / Getty Images

So the date is named, the place is set for the crossing of rugby's Rubicon.

At a little past 3.30pm next Sunday, at Dublin's Aviva Stadium, the All Blacks are expected to become the first international team in the professional era to enjoy the perfect season.

Fourteen test matches, 14 victories, and one giant buttressing of their awesome hegemony since winning the 2011 World Cup on home turf.

"The most dominant team in the history of the world," they called themselves. We had better start believing it.

True, they looked passably mortal for the hour between their second and third Twickenham tries.

But for a couple of lineout steals as England's continuity dissolved, and the most sterling locking shift by Sam Whitelock on the occasion of his 50th cap, the narrative as the men in black headed to Ireland yesterday might not have been nearly so seamless.

Yet it's worth considering that despite Chris Robshaw's hideously empurpled eye, and Dylan Hartley hurling himself so hard at Richie McCaw that he bruised his lung, New Zealand still prevailed by eight points.

In those rare instances when the contest is on the line in the final quarter, they remain maddeningly impregnable.

It was not a "wow" performance by most All Black measurements, either. Steve Hansen described his players' discipline as "average" in their gifting of five penalties to Owen Farrell, while McCaw lamented that the display was "by no means perfect".

Even Kieran Read, by common consent the planet's finest player in 2013, was guilty of a grade-school lapse when he knocked on to let Joe Launchbury score England's try.

But then Read had also hinted at the depth of New Zealand's tenacity when he highlighted their capacity to "fight until the 80th minute, to go to those places and grind out the tough ones". Ultimately, this cussedness proved their crucial distinction.

Just once in 34 matches since reclaiming the Webb Ellis Trophy have they been beaten and much chatter, predictably, focuses upon whether the All Black juggernaut tearing a swathe across northern Europe are truly the greatest team in history.

In the consummate Read, the granite-willed McCaw, and the tirelessly scrapping blindside Liam Messam, they possess a peerless back row. Julian Savea, the match-winner against England with his two tries, and a wing who somehow combines his explosive bursts with his diagnosis as an asthmatic, is also a singular talent. Israel Dagg is a fullback to die for, while on the right Charles Piutau, 21, produced pace and power.

With two tries in Paris and a Twickenham debut of poise and polish, Piutau has been blooded effortlessly into a side that also has four men with 100 caps or more. That's the defining Kiwi blend of young bucks and grizzled old hands - we easily forget that while New Zealand's starting XV at Twickenham boasted a combined 842 caps, versus England's 314, they also had an average age of only 26.

There are signs of a changing of the guard. McCaw, at 32 already past the customary peak for an openside flanker, cannot go on forever.

And Dan Carter, despite his "DC100" gold boots to mark his century of tests, also had never looked more vulnerable than when he went off after 23 minutes with an Achilles problem. Such was the conviction with which Aaron Cruden filled the breach that even Carter's starting place no longer appears guaranteed.

By the time England arrive for a three-test tour of New Zealand in June, the All Blacks could be into the post-Carter generation. But their strength in reserve is such that this ostensibly momentous change is all but imperceptible in the outcome.

This side might not be the best, but their ceaseless pursuit of 80-minute perfection means they are as close to invincible as sport has ever seen.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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