Last gasp All Blacks steal win over Ireland
A perfect finish to the perfect year.
In a finale that mirrored the dramas of the rugby league Kiwis just 24 hours earlier, it took the All Blacks until the final minute of a glorious test match to clinch a 24-22 victory over the gallant and desperately unlucky Irish.
In a conclusion that almost defied belief, the All Blacks conjured an 80th-minute try from 65 metres out to replacement back Ryan Crotty to level the scores at 22-22, then had to watch as an ice-cool Aaron Cruden required two shots at a near sideline conversion to snatch an epic victory.
It was a finish that sapped the life out of the capacity 52,000-strong crowd who had been at full voice all afternoon as they roared their team to what they thought was going to be a history-making victory. It would have been no less than a fabulously committed Irish side would have deserved.
But it was not to be, and you had to admire the All Blacks' nerve at the end as they kept their cool to snatch a win that racks up the first perfect test season in the professional era.
The 14-0 season was achieved, but by the narrowest of margins.
The All Blacks had looked gone when they forced a penalty from 60-odd metres out with time almost up. They tapped, and with Ben Smith and Kieran Read featuring prominently, they worked the ball into the Irish 22.
From there it was all about the finish. The New Zealanders attacked the left side, and replacement hooker Dane Coles found himself with a big decision to make.
He got it right, slipping a great pass to Crotty and the Cantab was able to scramble over for the try, though it did require a fair old once-over by the TMO.
But the dramas weren't finished. Cruden's first conversion attempt floated wide to the right. But the Irish had charged too soon, and the little No 10 got a second crack.
Nervelessly, he stepped up and slotted the ball between the posts to complete a great comeback-win and the slice of history these All Blacks had been so keen to achieve. On a gloriously imperfect night for them, they'd achieved the perfect season.
It was not the complete performance the All Blacks had been seeking - nowhere near it. But you had to admire their courage and execution when it mattered. They found a way to win, when they looked gone for all money.
They came back from 15 points down at halftime to again break Irish hearts.
The home team were magnificent.
They won most of the battles this afternoon, except the one that counted. Their forwards, led by the mighty Munster man Paul O'Connell, outplayed their vaunted opposites, and the backs, with Connor Murray superb at No 9, tackled themselves to standstill after a dazzling first 40 minutes.
It leaves us now pondering the standing of these All Blacks.
The best ever? There's no way to know for sure, and there have been some mighty New Zealand teams over the years. Brian Lochore's side won every test they played for four years between 1966-69, the 1987 World Cup-winning All Blacks went on a tremendous run on the back of their victory in the inaugural global tournament, and John Hart's men of 1996-97 lost just one test in that span, and in the process became the first New Zealand side to win a series in South Africa.
But what Hansen's men have achieved this season, in a busy schedule packed with quality opponents, is something very special.
They have swept France 4-0, the Wallabies 3-0, the Springboks and Pumas 2-0, and added the scalps of Japan, England and, now, Ireland in a sustained spell of excellence.
They have won with style, with guile, with grunt and they have found their way out of the odd spot of difficulty. They have also built an enviable depth in a squad that has lost key players to injury - notably the talismanic McCaw for a spell and Dan Carter - and barely broken stride.
The All Blacks had made a late change today when lock Luke Romano - not having the best of years - had to pull out with a virus. That saw Brodie Retallick come back into the starting lineup, and Liam Messam slot on to the bench in a shuffle that, if anything, strengthened the world champions.
But what a start it was by the Irish with three tries, and a 19-0 lead inside the first quarter of the match.
Aviva Stadium was heaving, and the men in green were riding the passion of a very involved capacity crowd.
Much like they had in 2001 - McCaw's debut test - the home side made a fast and furious start and had the All Blacks on the ropes early.
Twelve years ago the Irish led 21-7 early in the second half but were steamrolled by the fast-finishing All Blacks 40-29, and McCaw's men faced a similar challenge today as they went into the halftime break trailing 7-22, sitting a distant second in this two-horse race.
The Irish forwards were magnificent through the first half, smashing the All Blacks at every opportunity and winning the physical battle hands-down.
Flanker Sean O'Brien made an outstanding return to form, and hooker Rory Best, until he departed injured after a quarter of an hour, prop Cian Healy, skipper Paul O'Connell and big No 8 Jamie Heaslip were all fire and brimstone through a brilliant first 40 minutes.
Halfback Connor Murray, who had a sizzling first half too, opened the Irish scoring after just four minutes when he managed to slip between Andrew Hore and Wyatt Crockett to finish some sustained early pressure.
Six minutes later Best was across to double the lead to 14-0 as the hooker, O'Brien and Murray combined to breach the All Black defence and quick phase ball saw the No 2 able to reach out and plant the try in the tackle.
The home fans, by now delirious, could not believe their eyes when, just shy of the opening quarter mark, fullback Rob Kearney dashed 80 metres for a 19-0 lead after being gifted possession by a soft Israel Dagg fumble.
The All Blacks at least got on the board in the 26th minute when the Smiths, Ben and Aaron, finally broke the stout Irish defence and Cruden put in a nice left-footed grubber that winger Julian Savea gobbled up for his 19th try in just his 20th test.
But even then the New Zealanders could not truly wrest the initiative, and a Jonathan Sexton penalty extended the lead to 22-7 at the break, with all sorts of adjustments needed by the All Blacks chasing history, as well as their tails.
It took the All Blacks a while to get back within striking distance.
Israel Dagg went close, but was denied by some sensational defence by Murray, and Cruden slotted one of two penalties to inch them a little further along the comeback trail.
Then, with a quarter of an hour remaining big Ben Franks powered over from close range to close the gap to 17-22.
Savea broke a tackle and Franks was eventually able to break the goal-line defence for the seven-pointer that set up the grandstand finish.
Sexton had a chance to seal the deal seven minutes from time, but pushed a handy penalty attempt to the right. It was to prove a costly miss, as the All Blacks found the magic right when they needed it most.
New Zealand 24 (Julian Savea, Ben Franks, Ryan Crotty tries; Aaron Cruden pen, 3 cons), Ireland 22 (Conor Murray, Rory Best, Rob Kearney tries; Jonny Sexton pen, 2 cons ).