Just one defeat is the headline grabbing statistic of 2016, but for All Blacks rugby coach Steve Hansen, the real cause for celebration was the nature of the wins.

He, like everyone else, admired the skill and speed of the All Blacks' attacking game in the first half of the season. It was, however, the guts and desire they showed in the second and the All Blacks' ability to stay in the fight that warmed his heart the most.

Hansen never feared his side would lack for talent this year. He had nothing but confidence in the ability of his squad. He knew the All Blacks had as many good athletes and players in 2016 as they did in 2015. So the rugby they played in the first 10 tests of the year didn't necessarily surprise, even if it did elate him.

The pace was ferocious. The execution mostly good and the range of skills at times mesmerising. All great stuff and yet he, like the players, took more out of the last four tests. More because the All Blacks, for the first time since their World Cup semifinal, were forced to dog it out for 80 minutes.

Advertisement

They weren't able to pass and run the way they wanted. They didn't have the tests against Ireland and France done and dusted with 20 minutes to go. They had to battle for everything, sustain long periods of pressure and hold on mentally.

That they managed to do has left Hansen in good spirits about where this team is heading.

Losing around 900 test caps as they did after the World Cup was tough and when 148 were tied to captain Richie McCaw, no one had any right to believe the transition would be seamless. Not that it was, but it was as good - probably better - than Hansen expected.

To come home with just the one defeat, is above expectation. Asked what pleased him most, Hansen said: "The character the team showed at times and the skill factor.

"We are well known for being a highly-skilled team but at times we've had to show composure and the key thing I'm happy with is that the leaders have stood up. We have lost Richie, Conrad [Smith] and Ma'a [Nonu] and people like Kevvy [Mealamu] and Woody [Tony Woodcock] and those guys in the pressure cooker of a test match have been ice cool and calm and have allowed the team to come out the other side.

"To lose them and still be able to do that the majority of the time, other than probably Chicago, has been satisfying. I think we got asked even more questions [in the last four weeks]. We got asked some in Chicago and afterwards I think when we discussed it, they learned quite a bit and I think they responded really well in both Italy and Dublin. And then coming off a win like we did in Dublin and having to front up against a good French side was really pleasing."

If there was an added benefit - a little extra bonus Hansen wasn't expecting - it was the emergence of Rieko Ioane and Scott Barrett as players of considerable potential.

Both surpassed expectation and played their way deeper into the selectors' thinking for 2017.

"At the start of this tour, we wouldn't have thought Rieko would have been playing in this game," says Hansen. "He stood up and played well. He has got the potential to be a very good rugby player. Scott Barrett got an opportunity through the injuries to [Brodie] Retallick and [Sam] Whitelock and he is the only guy who played all four games. He should be proud."