The numbers say the All Blacks are sitting pretty, two years through the World Cup cycle. But Richie McCaw's bloodied and battered visage in the press conference room deep within Dublin's Aviva Stadium told a different story.
Elation and celebration should have been the prevailing emotions as the All Blacks completed the first perfect test season in the professional era with a remarkable 24-22 comeback victory over Ireland.
Instead relief, satisfaction and pride were the chief sentiments after a game where the world's best team was again worryingly fallible.
The All Blacks continually tell us they are their own hardest markers, and they would have found plenty at fault in a performance against the fightin' Irish who came within a hair's breadth, or at least an upright, of a historic home victory that would have tested the Guinness supply in Dublin.
But Irish first five-eighth Jonny Sexton drifted a late penalty just outside the right upright, missing a chance to put his team eight points up with six minutes remaining.
Some Black Magic then completed a remarkable escape act.
"If that had gone over it was 'game over'," acknowledged McCaw. "They gave us a sniff," added Steve Hansen.
Certainly you have to admire the All Blacks for taking that sniff and snuffing out Irish hopes.
It was heady stuff: forcing a penalty 29 seconds from time; launching a clinical, classical surge upfield; Ben Smith and Kieran Read major contributors; and, after eating the necessary metres, striking with withering intent. Aaron Cruden's cutout pass finds Dane Coles, pressure off-load to Ryan Crotty.
The scores are level. But still the drama comes.
Cruden, who can't run a game like Dan Carter but sure can run the ball, drifts his conversion attempt just outside the right post. But Ireland had charged too soon. The kick is retaken and this time Cruden nails it. Cue, Irish eyes crying.
Throw in Julian Savea's first-half try - his 19th in 20 tests - off a peach of a Cruden grubber, and a Ben Franks special midway through the second half that got the ball rolling, and that was pretty much the good stuff for the All Blacks.
There was plenty that was not so sharp. They were monstered at the breakdown, outplayed by a pack who brought passion and intensity in bucketloads. They were also too one-dimensional, looking flat and fatigued as they trailed 19-0 early, and 22-7 at the half.
The spark needed to quell the Irish fury was largely absent.
In two years' time, the All Blacks will return to these parts attempting to win their first World Cup on foreign soil. On the evidence of the past three weeks, they do not have things as much their own way as some are suggesting.
Dominant they may be but daunting they are not.
France, England and now Ireland will all have told themselves that they are only an adjustment or two from being right up there with the best team on the planet.
So have the All Blacks come back to the pack on this tour or are the north genuinely making progress?
Probably a bit of both.
Sustaining quality has been a challenge after the New Zealanders peaked in Jo'burg. They have not gone past base camp since.
McCaw admitted afterwards that "relief" was his prevailing emotion.
"As time goes on, we'll reflect over what's been a pretty tough year and when you think about the challenges we've had, to win them all brings a lot of pride. We've probably used 40-odd players and it doesn't just happen on the weekend. That's something we can all reflect on and give ourselves a pat on the back when we've got some time off."
But 14 out of 14? I asked for his reflection on that.
"We've played pretty much all the top teams round the world, and northern games are different to the ones we play in the Rugby Championship. To be able to deal with those challenges, and injuries, I'm pretty proud that we've been able do the job under those circumstances.
"You'd like to go out and play the perfect game every week but the reality is you've got 15 guys stopping you, and finding ways to deal with those things is what I love. It's why you do the things you do. The thing I'm most proud of is we've been tested in all sorts of ways and been able to find the answers."
Hansen also feels wins like the last three can be banked for down the line. "Our young players, who haven't been in this situation with the All Blacks before, will realise it doesn't matter what the scoreboard says, it's about doing what you have to do in that moment.
"And if you've got the talent, mental fortitude and composure, then you're still a chance."
World Cups are a grind. The last three weeks have been a grind.
The moons are aligning - even this far out.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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