Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: All Blacks find perfection

For the past week we have been publishing our nominees for the Herald's sporting achievement of the year. Patrick McKendry lauds the winners

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

With 20 seconds remaining at Dublin's Aviva Stadium, Aaron Smith started the movement which crowned the All Blacks' season and broke Irish hearts. It is likely to become one of the most-watched final minutes in test rugby.

There was no hesitation from the little halfback or any of his teammates, who all played their part. Ryan Crotty's try to complete the All Blacks' perfect season, a movement one minute and 20 seconds in the making, was a testament to their skill as well as their belief. One mistake and they were finished - yet there was no hint of the pressure they must have been under.

All but two players - Brodie Retallick and Richie McCaw - handled the ball. Crotty would say later, that smile still on his heavily bearded face, that the All Blacks knew the Irish were beginning to defend narrowly and that there would be space near the sidelines as long as they could retain possession. They could and there was.

Crotty's try and Cruden's re-taken conversion, which gave their team the lead for the first time (24-22) - five minutes after the fulltime siren - was the All Blacks' crowning glory, and it was appropriate that their final test of their perfect year came with late dramatics.

The perfect season had never been achieved before by a top rugby nation in the professional era.

The All Blacks did it against the best too - their 14 victories came against six nations ranked in the top 10 (the other, Japan, is ranked 14th).

The year continued Steve Hansen's success since taking over from Sir Graham Henry as head coach. In two years he has tasted defeat only once, with the other disappointing result the 18-18 draw with Australia in Brisbane last year.

However, as good as the All Blacks' fightback was in Dublin before a crowd of 51,000, which must have been among the noisiest they have played in front of all year, it wasn't their best performance of the season.

That probably came at Ellis Park against the Springboks, a pulsating 38-27 victory of the highest quality, a test which featured yet another cameo from Beauden Barrett (who also shone in Dublin).

It was a test played by the two best teams in the world near the top of their game, a match in which the lead changed hands several times and in which defence was as prominent as attack. Barrett's sprint back to the corner to knock flying wing Willie le Roux into touch in the dying minutes was a highlight in itself.

It was a performance that the All Blacks had built to all year - from the relatively low-key test victories over France in Auckland, Christchurch and New Plymouth, to the comfortable, but entertaining wins over Australia. There was a taste of what was to come against the Springboks in their first Rugby Championship test at Eden Park, the bloody battle in which hooker Bismarck de Plessis was wrongly sinbinned for his tackle on Dan Carter and later saw red for his elbow to Liam Messam's throat.

There was a sense of decline after Ellis Park, the Aussies going closer in Bledisloe III in Dunedin; even the Japanese pushed the All Black scrum around in Tokyo.

But it is the defining moments of their northern tour, where all three tests were in the balance, which stick in the memory.

In Paris, a shakier final scrum on the All Blacks' line could have resulted in a drawn test; at Twickenham, Sam Whitelock's lineout steal and Ma'a Nonu's delicate pass for Julian Savea's try helped the visitors to an eight-point margin; in Dublin, the All Blacks' ability to go side to side - and up the middle - without knocking the ball on, and Cruden's nerves of steel.

They were all individual acts built on the foundation of a team-first ethos. It takes skill to mould a disparate group of players like Hansen does. He took 37 away on the northern tour and there was no hint of rivalry between any of the players on the training paddock. All seemed genuinely keen to help each other improve despite each individual's desire for game time. Of course, consistent results help with that closeness - nothing brings a team together like winning.

It was a year in which Carter's injury problems continued - his body holding up long enough for him to celebrate his 100th test in front of his proud dad Neville at Twickenham - and it was a year in which Kieran Read continued to develop at the age of 28. Read, officially recognised as the best player in the world, has become one of the most important players in the All Blacks. The humble kid from Papakura, south Auckland, has made a habit of turning test matches with one or two pieces of sublime skill. It was noticeable how dominant he was in the closing stages of the tests in Paris, London and Dublin.

As Hansen looks to improve on this year, the main areas of focus could be the scrum, which held up well in Europe despite a few shaky moments in Tokyo, and the breakdown. The referees on the northern tour cracked down on the latter - to the point where it was hardly worth contesting.

Nigel Owens' most contentious penalty in Dublin was his last one - an Irish forward losing his feet in a ruck - but he could have found similar trans-gressions in every other breakdown.

The All Blacks got there in the end, though. A dramatic finish to a perfect year.

- APNZ

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