New Zealand has become the first team in professional rugby history to win every international game in a calendar year. The All Blacks completed the record with an exhilarating 24-22 victory over Ireland on Sunday.
They have gained a total of 14 victories throughout 2013, with their final game at the Aviva Stadium a standout candidate for match of the year. Fly Half Aaron Cruden sealed their astonishing triumph with a conversion, after an injury time try was scored by replacement Ryan Crotty in dramatic style.
Ireland showed great zest and ambition throughout, and perhaps caught the reigning World Champions by surprise. The home side raced into a 19-0 lead within the opening 17 minutes, in a stunning start to this sensational game. Conor Murray crossed the line with just four minutes on the clock, with a burrowing drive over from a couple of metres out, before hooker Rory Best added a second try in the tenth minute.
Full back Rob Kearney then intercepted a fumble from opposite number Israel Dagg to sprint home from his own 10 meter line, sending Irish fans into raptures. It seemed as though the Irish were bound to make history themselves, as they were on course for their first win over New Zealand in 108 years.
However, the World Champions maintained their focus and stuck to the high intensity, creative rugby synonymous with New Zealand teams past and present. They replied when a Cruden grubber kick released winger Julian Savea, who touched down under the posts after 25 minutes.
Both teams added penalty kicks to their totals, making the score 22-10 as the game approached the final 15 minutes. Ben Franks then added another try for the Kiwis to set up a grandstand finish to both sides’ final test match of the year.
Their persistence in the end paid dividends, as sustained play through the phases led to Crotty’s try, and confirmation of their perfect record followed with Cruden’s conversion.
It has been a marvellous year for the All Blacks, who have maintained their winning run while introducing many of their outstanding youngsters to the international set up. Just 13 of the European touring party of 36 were members of their 2011 World Cup winning squad, showing clear proof of their unbelievable squad depth.
They have been victorious in matches with South Africa, Australia and Argentina in their successful Rugby Championship campaign, and also attained four victories over France either side of the tournament. Single wins over Japan and England and Sunday’s win over Ireland completed their set of fixtures, and in a testament to the team, new stars have been uncovered along the way.
It is worth bearing in mind that two of their most recognizable, talismanic stars in Richie McCaw and Dan Carter have started together in just three test matches of the 14. Kieran Read in particular has had a fantastic year, and has shown the attributes to be considered McCaw’s successor in terms of consistency and influence. Debutants since their 2011 World Cup win, Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Charles Piutau and Julian Savea have all particularly impressed, and all should figure in forthcoming squads as head coach Steve Hansen builds towards the next World Cup.
Hansen has admitted that the core of the squad is in place for 2015, giving debuts to 21 players since the 2011 tournament ended. Hansen is building a legacy while at the same time planning for the future, and still producing winning results and performances tantamount to All Blacks teams of the past.
New Zealand’s perfect record in 2013 has been sustained while molding a new squad, and with the next World Cup two years away, this team has plenty of time to grow and develop their winning instinct that was so prevalent in their game in Dublin. With the All Blacks already head and shoulders above the rest, one can only imagine what they are going to achieve in years to come.
What can this New Zealand squad achieve in the coming years? Who are your standout players from the current team?