All Blacks produce a century of excellence
Whatever way you look at it, the last 100 tests in All Black history have been something pretty damn special.
Heading into last night's 500th in Christchurch, the All Blacks had won 85, drew 1 and lost 13 of the previous 99 internationals, and claimed a World Cup, three Grand Slams, four Tri-Nations and completed a 6-0 clean sweep of the inaugural Rugby Championship.
Since game No 401 on the 2005 end-of-year tour north, the All Blacks, under first Graham Henry and then Steve Hansen, have produced an unerring standard of excellence that has dominated world rugby with an iron fist. Not only that but they've done it with a fair degree of style too.
Of their 13 defeats, only three have come at the hands of teams not named the Springboks or Wallabies. They have also lost just three times at home - twice to South Africa and once to France - over the quickest 100-test span in their history which has taken fewer than eight seasons.
The All Blacks may average close to 13 tests a season these days but their standards remain sky high. Littered among those last 100 outings have been some fabulous performances, memorable tries and one or two pretty nifty escape acts.
Separating the wheat from the chaff has not been easy in this era of dominance which included a 17-test winning streak - over 2011-12 - equalling the best in the team's history.
The greatest moment, undoubtedly, was the 8-7 World Cup final triumph over the French at Eden Park in 2011. The All Blacks hadn't won the global crown since they previously staged the tournament back in 1987 and simply had to deliver on home soil. But the French had other ideas and after an inglorious path to the final summoned a performance for the ages in pushing the New Zealanders to the limit, and beyond.
Sure, there will be arguments about whether such a low-scoring, relatively highlights-free contest deserves its place in the pantheon of great games. The 20-6 semifinal over the Wallabies was much more emphatic, and stylish.
But what the final lacked in free-flowing footy it made up for in tension, high stakes, bone-crunching physicality and utter commitment. It was a contest for the purists as two teams slugged out a stalemate that was, in the end, decided by a poorly hit penalty from the All Blacks' fourth-string first five-eighth, Stephen Donald, who emerged from the banks of the Waikato River fishing for whitebait to claim folk-hero status.
The All Blacks hung on, for sure, and the last 20 minutes was almost painful to watch from a Kiwi perspective. So many things could have gone wrong - and nearly did. But in the end Richie McCaw raised that golden trophy and a nation was able to collectively exhale.
I plucked for the 2010 29-22 victory over the Springboks in Soweto as my other standout from the 100-test block, simply because of the exhilarating finish that saw the All Blacks score twice in the final three minutes to claim a famous victory in breathless fashion.
But there were other candidates. The 32-16 victory over the Boks in Soweto last year, from 12-16 down at the break, was breathtaking, and who will forget those two champagne wins over the French, 47-3 in Lyon in 2006 and 39-12 in Marseille in 2009, that uncorked the All Blacks game at its best?
The 32-6 defeat of England at Twickenham in 2008 completed the Grand Slam in sumptuous style (without a try conceded), while the 44-12 demolition of the English in 2008 in Christchurch and the 45-26 victory over the Boks in Pretoria in 2006 also live long in the memory.
Two other escape acts are also worth highlighting: 2007's 26-21 win over the Boks in Durban after the All Blacks had trailed 12-21 with a quarter of an hour to go; and the 2010 23-22 victory over the Wallabies in Sydney from 6-19 down early in the second half.
It's been a memorable last 100 tests, for sure, with a core cast of characters there for most of them. There have been some great All Blacks eras, but you can certainly make a case that the men in black have saved their best for last.
So, what do the next 100 have in store? Hopefully the first World Cup triumph on foreign soil, which represents a final frontier of sorts for the All Blacks. Then another Lions triumph in 2017 because there really is nothing in the game these days like a full tour from the best of British and Irish rugby.
We'll also watch closely to see if Argentina can emerge as a genuine force in the Rugby Championship and, as always, traditional foes the Boks and Wallabies will keep the All Blacks honest.
But more than anything what we will hope for - what we will expect - is more of the same from an All Blacks side which sets the standards in the world game.
Sunday Star Times