Year-ender: 2013 All Blacks 'The Unbeatables'
Experience and calmness win the dayTOBY ROBSON
These All Blacks were not the most entertaining we have seen, and probably not the most talented.
They did not possess the backline firepower of the 1995 to 1997 ilk, nor were they as far ahead of their rivals as the World Cup-winning class that ran riot from 1987 to 1989.
However, the class of 2013 was the most experienced All Blacks side of all time and possibly the best prepared.
It will be their ability to stay in the moment, absorb pressure and solve the problems they faced that marks them apart.
Wins over France, England and Ireland at the end of a long season highlighted their resilience, character and determination.
But more than that, they showed a team that had been through every conceivable situation before.
These players were the survivors of the 2007 World Cup quarterfinal nightmare in Cardiff, the World Cup winners of 2011, the men who endured an agonising loss to England at Twickenham in 2012, and everything in between.
Their coach was there for all of those moments too and his deep understanding of his players' workloads, both mentally and physically, was an enormous asset.
Steve Hansen never got ahead of himself, as many All Blacks coaches have in the past.
When you are so stacked with firepower and talent, it is easy to try to over-extend in attack.
The All Blacks' style this season was not conservative, but nor was it extravagant.
That serves an important purpose during a long season where rotation is imperative and bit-part players may be asked to step in at crucial moments.
Tom Taylor slotted in at first five-eighth on debut against Australia in Wellington and Ryan Crotty scored the most important try of the year, in Dublin.
This team knew their strengths and weaknesses and played to them all year.
The lineout was a strength, the scrum was a work on, the bench was a trusted and non-negotiable asset.
The tactical kicking was not always perfectly executed, but it was done in the right part of the field and with purpose and planning - Mick Byrne should take a bow.
Halfbacks kicked to regain possession. Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Ma'a Nonu did the same from short kickoffs and their ability to see and exploit space in behind the defence was a constant.
At fullback Israel Dagg was disciplined in his option-taking at the back, where he rarely set off on solo missions.
The All Blacks backs set out to break the line from set pieces.
Nonu's pop pass to wing Ben Smith from a lineout against Argentina at La Plata was the highlight of the year.
BUT it was what happened next that ensured success, right to the last play against Ireland.
The All Blacks used big men like Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick to create phase ball from the midfield and bigger men like Owen Franks and Tony Woodcock to clean the rucks.
Forwards knew their roles.
Kieran Read and Liam Messam lurked on the fringes, where they played like power backs and opened space on those precious metres near the touchline for men like Smith and Charles Piutau to prosper.
To a man this team understood the simple ability to square up defenders and draw and pass.
It created myriad opportunities throughout a year notable for how many tries were scored out wide.
The attack stuttered at times. The All Blacks looked to commit minimal numbers to the breakdown and Aaron Smith had challenges clearing ball as a result.
But there was never panic.
Numbers were changed, referees taken into account, tempo adjusted.
The kick and chase game allowed the All Blacks to regather momentum when their running game hit a brick wall.
Hansen's faith in his bench allowed his side to finish with a bang.
Other coaches may not have had so much faith in players like Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Crotty, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina and others.
Defensively this team was immense. Captains Read and Richie McCaw, Whitelock, Franks, Messam went forward all year.
Nonu led a debilitating drift in the backs that bought time for the scrambling second line to pick up any breaches.
All Blacks defence coach Aussie McLean deserves a pat on the back.
Amid all the success, Hansen managed to blood 11 new caps, not including uncapped halfback TJ Perenara or apprentice openside Ardie Savea, as his post World Cup regeneration continued.
Wing Piutau was the pick of the newcomers and looks a long-term test centre, while blindside Steven Luatua was not far behind.
Read was the best player, Ben Smith the best back, hooker Dane Coles and Beauden Barrett improved immeasurably. Messam, Whitelock, Retallick, Julian Savea and McCaw were consistently at the top of their games.
Nonu was crucial if occasionally flawed, Dagg likewise, while the props including senior men Owen Franks and Woodcock all struggled to come to grips with the new engagement calls.
There were several tests where a side of less experience may have lost, including Johannesburg, Paris, London and Dublin.
The All Blacks' senior players changed and adapted to what was in front of them. They stayed calm. They won. They were, quite simply, The Unbeatables.
- Fairfax Media
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