Rugby: Stellar All Black year has been as good as it gets

Aaron Cruden. Photo / Getty Images
Aaron Cruden. Photo / Getty Images

If the All Blacks indeed trod the untrodden tonight against Ireland - the first side in the professional era to remain undefeated - their path to perfection has not been an easy one.

They could possibly have lost two tests this year - that brilliant, pulsating match against the Springboks at Ellis Park and last weekend's bruising encounter with England.

The Ellis Park test, the All Blacks' first win there since 1997, was really only brought under control with Beauden Barrett's try and finished off with a try (one of six he has scored so far this season) to the best player in the world this year: Kieran Read.

It was one of the best encounters between these two great rivals, a feast of commitment and attacking rugby - born, in part, by the need for the Boks to beat the All Blacks with a four-try bonus point to claim the Rugby Championship; opening the way for a fine attacking and counter-attacking test instead of the usual war of attrition.

That the Boks scored four tries against the All Blacks was a huge signal for the future for the South Africans; if they can cut down on the mistakes that fed an All Black team proficient in counter-attack, they will know they are building a side capable of attacking as well as the usual Springbok game plan of physical domination, positional and possession percentages, miserly defence and a precision goalkicker.

England were a different story. Their set piece and their physical efforts at the breakdown were enough to demonstrate that the All Blacks can still be put off their stroke by a big pack with a muscular approach. Amid all the praise for the All Blacks' ability to take the final, telling steps and come from behind to win the test, it was almost forgotten that theirs was not a perfect display.

Their kicking game was flawed; they often ended up simply returning the ball to an England side who did not lose it for long periods. The English might not have achieved much on attack but their commitment at the breakdown meant they largely nullified this All Black team's ability to turn the ball over and counter-attack, as they'd done at Ellis Park.

The lessons will not have been lost on both teams and it is easy to imagine that the Rugby World Cup finalists in 2015 will come from two of these three sides.

But that's 2015 and, providing the hurdle of Ireland is cleared tonight, the 2013 All Blacks have the satisfaction of a job not only well done but finished, if not without a flaw, with a perfect played 14, won 14 record.

The bald statistics suggest that they may not have scored as many points as their 2012 selves (the 2012 All Blacks played 14, won 12, lost 1, drew 1 - that tryless 18-18 match against Australia in Brisbane, ending the All Blacks' quest for a world-record sequence of test victories. The 2012 version may have scored more points and conceded fewer than this year's team but the reality is that the 2013 opponents were tougher.

This year, there have been four tests against France, three against the Wallabies and two each against the Pumas and the Boks. The only "easy" opponents were Japan. In 2012, Scotland and Italy were on the dance card as were three tests against Ireland, the last of which was won 60-0.

So, while perfection may never actually be achieved, they came close.

- Herald on Sunday

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