Napier: When the All Blacks defied all the odds

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 22/12/2013
Richie McCaw
Getty Images
JUST PAST THE POST: All Blacks captain Richie McCaw shows his appreciation to the fans after the great escape in Dublin.

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OPINION: Living up to expectations isn't the common Kiwi motto.

Coming from such an isolated, comparatively small dual island populace, many of our sporting elite are born to punch above their weight.

Up against much larger, wealthier nations, defying the seemingly insurmountable odds is a familiar theme.

Everyone, after all, loves an underdog. In this part of the globe it's an inherent characteristic in the film, political and sport spheres. That theory doesn't apply to the All Blacks, though. They are the exception.

Every time New Zealand's premier rugby team takes the field they are not just expected to win, but come close to the perfect performance. Anything less is met with grunts of disapproval over a pint in the local pub.

No other team, in this country at least, deals with the same unparalleled expectations and pressures. No-one even comes close. That's the reality of leading the way in the national sport. There are no second chances. No room for excuses. Rare losses are ridiculed.

Opposition teams gain little credit for pushing the men in black. Generally, criticism focuses on what went wrong for the favourites.

This also means the All Blacks' sustained success is often taken for granted.

Not this year.

The first perfect season in the professional era - 14 test wins from 14 - deserves significant recognition. The fact it took 18 years for anyone to achieve it serves to highlight the immense physical and mental fortitude required. It sure doesn't happen by chance. Though comparisons are subjective, it's difficult to put any other Kiwi team on par with the All Blacks' achievement this year.

Sure, men's rowing pair Eric Murray and Hamish Bond's continued dominance - securing a fourth world championship and taking their tally to 25 crushed crews in 44 unbeaten races since 2009 - is a feat worth toasting with the Christmas champers.

As was the Breakers' three consecutive titles; the Black Sox's record six world championship crowns and, 12 months after winning gold at the London Olympics, Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie being named the International Sailing Federation's female sailors of the year.

Yet the All Blacks' closest rivals came from within.

It's been a memorable year for New Zealand rugby, all round.

The unheralded Chiefs were shamefully snubbed at last year's rugby awards. So they backed up their drought-breaking 2012 triumph, just for good measure.

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Two years ago no-one predicted Dave Rennie would transform the franchise in such dramatic fashion. And he's just getting started.

Canterbury won a record sixth straight NPC crown - and consigned Wellington to their seventh final defeat since 2000. Scott Robertson joined Rob Penn-ey and Tabai Matson in proving the red-and-black's remarkable provincial dynasty is built by no individual. Counties Manukau, having never previously held the oldest and most prestigious domestic New Zealand rugby trophy, topped off a captivating hot-potato Ranfurly Shield season by repelling Southland, Waikato and Taranaki to lock away the Log o' Wood for a sweet summer of celebration in Pukekohe.

And both the men's and women's sevens teams pulled off double acts, winning their respective world cup and world series tournaments. But in terms of pure competition, you can't go past the all-conquering, globe-trotting All Blacks.

The only team Steve Hansen's men didn't play in 2013 that had legitimate claims of challenging were the Welsh. Then again, Warren Gatland's dismal 1 from 23 record against southern hemisphere nations with Wales is far from flattering.

The All Blacks overcame another exhaustive schedule that saw them cross multiple time zones, while taking the integration of rookies to 21 since the world cup, to lock away every possible trophy at Wellington headquarters. Triumphing at Johannesburg's revered Ellis Park, where they have now won just four of 14 tests, while down to 14 men for 20 minutes was a magnificent defiance of adversity. So, too, was the grit to withstand the English at Twickenham. And no-one will forget the unthinkable comeback - 90 seconds after the final whistle - in Dublin. Irish heartbreak stands at 108 years.

It's notable, too, that France, the nemesis, were beaten four times this season. Home and away. Sacre bleu!

The danger, of course, is the All Blacks once again become the best team between world cups. The old "peak too early" catch-cry resonates as the quest to defend the treasured Webb Ellis crown nears.

Make no mistake, Hansen will be reminding his men of that challenge.

Nothing discussed on the proverbial bar leaners hasn't been written on the infamous white board.

For now, though, it's worth lauding the All Blacks. No, they weren't perfect. Yes, they almost blew it. But this year they achieved something no other nation has.

Little ol' New Zealand remain the world's best in the XV-man code. This year they were the unbeatable trend setters. The ultimate, unclaimed rugby scalp.

Just because that's what we expect, doesn't mean it was any less satisfying.

ACHIEVEMENTS

BEST MATCH: The atmosphere at Ellis Park, South Africa's spiritual home of rugby, compares to nothing else. Where else would you see a jumbo jet come within metres of the stadium roof? Digging deep to quell the rabid Springboks, their manic supporters and a 16-year hoodoo in a test that had absolutely everything summed up the All Blacks' relentless attitude. The Dublin escape came close, but couldn't quite eclipse this epic; one of the all time greats.

INDIVIDUAL: Player of the year in every possible judge's book, no-one could overlook Kieran Read. The world-class No 8 was world rugby's most influential figure this season and will only get better.

ROOKIE: From the first moment Charles Piutau pulled on the black jersey he seemed ready for the international arena. By season's end he had Cory Jane, one of the world's best finishers, on the bench. His confrontational style and silky skills could yet see him move to centre. Wherever he plays, Piutau is a serious talent. 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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