New Zealand experienced something last weekend even more rare than an All Black defeat. It was a defeat accepted with good grace.

Rugby fans did not react with the anguish and woe that has been our usual response. Perhaps it was just that the winner last weekend was Ireland, who had never beaten the All Blacks before, and the Irish are popular opponents at any time.

In their sheer delight Irish fans did not, unlike some of our old foes, imagine their team to be the new rightful champions of rugby. They just savoured an achievement that was indeed superb and it would be hard not to share it.

But the refreshingly mature acceptance of this loss might not just be explained by likeable opponents. This was the All Blacks' first defeat since before last year's Rugby World Cup and it ended a record winning streak. They had nothing more to prove, left nothing more for New Zealanders to reasonably ask. In fact, they won the Rugby Championship this year by such a margin that many were undervaluing their opposition. So it might have been almost a relief to discover these All Blacks can have an off-day and can be beaten. But it is no less a relief to find we as a country can handle it.


Coach Steve Hansen showed the way. His comments directly after the match contained not a hint of an excuse for the result and gave the Irish due credit. Captain Kieran Read was not dour and downcast, as our rugby culture has demanded of defeated captains for too long. Even the great McCaw was prone to forget that a few words of praise for the victors is admirable in defeat.

How tedious any sport would become if its world best were really invincible. How meaningless it would become for the All Blacks. Not so long ago Australia's cricket team was so dominant for so long that Australians were pleading for a competitor. Now Australia struggle to beat India. The All Blacks have maintained their dominance under two coaches, through two World Cups and there seems no end to it. But there will be.

These November tours must present unusual challenges for the southern teams. They are like an adjunct to their season, a jaunt they deserve to enjoy after the rigours of the Rugby Championship. They are in the capitals of Europe and the opposition is weaker, though the grounds are heavier, the referees more fussy and the crowds more patient with matches whistled to death.

But as Ireland proved, and Italy will have drawn the lesson, even the best can be beaten on a bad day. Ireland will believe they can do it again in Dublin next weekend and they could. They have won the six nations championship in recent years and Leinster have won Europe's domestic competition. Can we take Italy as lightly as we took Ireland this time last week? The All Blacks' November tour is not the picnic it seemed.