Martin: The streak can't last, but ABs the best
Does it really matter whether this year's All Blacks team deserves consideration as the best ever?
OPINION: Let's just bask in the reflected glory of what's been a remarkable season and accept that, eventually, their winning streak must end.
In the final wash, the All Blacks were only a minor miracle away from ending their season on a losing note, as a spectacular bunch of Irishmen almost achieved the unimaginable in Dublin.
Ireland would have deserved their win, no question. But they lost, and it's a measure of coach Steve Hansen's planning and the resilience of an All Blacks squad hewn from qualities beyond our ken that they were able to salvage their unbeaten season.
France genuinely tested them; so did England. And anyone who thought that Ireland would provide a comfortable conclusion to the All Blacks' 14-match international season was kidding themselves. In many respects - and hindsight is a wondrous thing - Ireland always had the potential to upset a world champion team at the end of a gruelling campaign.
The final tests of season-ending European tours are consistently among the toughest to win for All Blacks players whose physical and mental capacities must be near breaking point. And you thought an Irish team playing at home and hell-bent on scoring their first win over the All Blacks weren't going to step up?
The point is, it's not what transpires in any one match that singles out this current crop of All Blacks; rather, it's the sum of their collective efforts over what's been a long and demanding season.
England beat the All Blacks at the end of last year's European tour, and a good many critics then were instantly championing England as the next World Cup winners. Where are they now?
Let England, Ireland, South Africa or anyone else string together a success record comparable to that of the All Blacks, and then we'll start lauding them as potential world champions.
It's not just that the All Blacks have developed a collective skill set unmatched by any other international side. The real essence of this team is the mental strength and self-belief in their ability to win under the most intense pressure.
The one test that revealed all those qualities was this year's Rugby Championship decider against South Africa. It was a fascinating exercise, not only in revealing the team's unquestioned playing ability but in highlighting the importance of mental acuity and their belief in the process.
But the best ever? It's unlikely that they can get through another international season unbeaten - or can they? Hansen has some impressive young talent already well versed in the All Blacks' winning culture. That might just be the most crucial element of all.
What did you make of this year's ITM Cup?